Sorry Revolution, I Cheated…

It’s no secret that I’ve been an admirer of the success that the Seattle Sounders have had since joining MLS, heck… who hasn’t admired its success.   I’ve asked it to stop rubbing its success in our collective New England faces and I’ve gone as far as to call it my soccer mistress.

Well, that mistress and I, we finally went all the way.

After countless business trips to the greater Seattle area, I finally made it to a Sounders Game, as they beat the Colorado Rapids last night.  I was in the second level, first row, mid-field line.  Arguably, for a non-chanting supporter, the best seat in the house.

And in all honesty, I’m struggling with how to describe about it in any reasonable way relative to what my “norm” is within MLS.

You see, I have been lucky enough to be at games in many countries, and attended matches in many of the most revered stadiums in the world but I cannot compare games I’ve seen in London, Milan, Rio de Janeiro, etc. to Foxboro.  Far too different, far too distant, far too much history for that.

But, in theory, this game should be similar.  And in many ways, it was.

But in just as many ways, I might as well have been back in Barcelona or Lisbon watching a game.  It was THAT different.

To really take it all in, I wanted a true feel for the club’s atmosphere… so I didn’t just go to the game.

I drank (anonymously) with its supporters at the bar Fuel, which is a key pre-game locale.

I listened to the Sound Wave marching band. (Hey, no snickering.)

I walked (marched?) behind the supporters as they chanted through the streets from Occidental park to Qwest Stadium – in a tide of awkward teals, electric greens, clowns (yes, clowns) and synchronized arm-waving and singing.

I went into the stadium pro-Shop and local sports stores.

I bought a darn scarf.  (OK, I do this for most games I travel to, cut me some slack…)

There’s too much here for me to mentally recall, digest and describe in any reasonable amount of time and blog-space, so you will be seeing a few more posts about this event (it is an event) and comparisons to the New England Revolution’s game-day experience.

But I will note these few observations from my day in Seattle:

  • There were 36,000+ fans at a regular season MLS game, and they cared.  Period.
  • Without any facts to back it up, I wouldn’t be surprised if that in its brief existence, the MLS version of the Sounders has sold (or distributed) more scarves, jerseys and t-shirts than the Revolution have since the league began.  They were EVERYWHERE.
  • I was unable to attend the Sporting Lisbon v. Celtic game in Fenway Park, so I’ve not experienced a Boston “city soccer” experience, but it only reinforced for me the view that a city resident stadium could be a game changer.  (Duh.)
  • Soccer Specific Stadium?  Who needs it?  (Some sarcasm included.)  Not only does a Sounders crowd fill the stadium reasonably well, but the branding is much more balanced between the Seahawks and Sounders.   There are still some awkward NFL leftovers that are seen, but far less than at Gillette Stadium.  Be it MLS themed seat covering tarps, pictures in lobbies better co-located with NFL shots or having the Sounders logo on key doors and stadium fixtures with, or instead of, the Seahawks were all things that added up to  make a difference.

I have never been to an MLS game like it.   The MLS Cup in RFK a few years ago came close, and the 62K+ that watched the Revolution lose the MLS Cup final at home was interesting.  But neither had this level of involvement.

All that said, things are not perfect with any team.

There’s a great discussion from about a year ago over at Pitch Invasion, which I highly recommend.  It talks to concerns that the “atmosphere” around the games are too canned – being orchestrated by the club and pawned off on the fans.

I agree with nearly everything in this article, which suggests that the prepackaged nature of Seattle’s “event” are less long-lasting than the do it yourself variety that comes from a supporter’s club.   (Don’t underestimate the very strong supporter’s influence as well though.)

However, where there is not interest, you create some.  Where there is limited history (yes, I know the Sounders existed pre-MLS, but it didn’t really “exist” for most of that 36K+ fans…) you create some ties that bind.

Well, Seattle didn’t give out ties.  They gave out Scarves.   The Scarves promotion and over-the-top love affair that has overtaken Seattle get’s people to feel they belong.  And that’s what being a fan is often all about.

And Revs fans “belong” to this same group.  We do have things in common with the Seattle fans.  We both sit down.

Of course, the whole bottom bowl of Qwest stadium only sat down at halftime.

Which is, of course, when most Revolution fans stand up.

“We” have some work to do.

MLS Not Friends with Summer Friendlies?

There’s an interesting article over at Match Fit USA called “#trophiesnotfriendlies” that builds on an idea that was seemingly started by Dave Clark over at Sounder at Heart.   The idea is pretty simple (though I paraphrase somewhat roughly), MLS clubs should be focusing-on and promoting Cup competitions with “real value” and not “meaningless” friendly matches.

In theory, it’s hard to argue.  Some games matter, some games don’t.

But nothing is ever quite that simple…

One issue that Jason at Match Fit USA focuses on are that the friendly games are included in Season ticket packages, USOC and CONCACAF Champions League Games are not.

However, I feel as if I might not have all of the information about the business side of things here.  I wonder about there being a revenue-sharing arrangement with CONCACAF or US Soccer that would be muddied by the tickets to those competitions being “comp’ed” as part of a season ticket package?  Sounds like an accounting nightmare.

I think that could be a major, if not the major, issue that makes these games get a non-Season Ticket holder treatment.

But let’s presume that is not the issue… are there other considerations?

One might be that there is also a reality check here regarding non-Sounder interest in these games.   Luckily the Sounders can get people out to the stadium pretty easily.  (Something I plan to witness first hand on the July 25th when I visit Seattle.)

Let’s presume that most MLS teams are still looking to broaden their fan-base.  Given this, one would want to attract – and show a good time to – as many local supporters of a visiting club as possible.  I’m going on a limb here and thinking Michigan Bucks don’t drag many away followers, versus say, Scotland’s Celtic.

When the visiting supporters visit the stadium, you want to show them a good time.  Now, I’m a Revs fan, and I have been to rainy mid-week US Open Cup games that could have fit the crowd within a high-school stadium.  I have also been to recent midweek games with Benfica and Cruzeiro, neither of which had great “home-team” atmospheres, but at least they had AN atmosphere.

Getting as many fans as possible on both sides to these games (including them in Season Ticket packages or otherwise) in at least gives an MLS team a “fighting chance” at winning a few over by having the best possible atmosphere.

Two last thoughts on this Cup over Friendly argument…

First, I agree that these are reasonably silly games, where the primary intent is not to get injured.   But, I sure prefer “MLS Team vs. Visiting Famous Team” better than watching two visiting famous pro-clubs.  It might sound absurd, but whether it is a barometer of skill or just the fun of seeing a $40K rookie marking a $4M man, it can be fun.  Euro vs. Euro games they pawn off on us sure do attract fans, but anyone who says “I watched a Milan dery at Gillette Stadium” certainly hasn’t been to many games outside the USA.

Second, I think the real challenge here is this.  These games should be value-add for fans and players, but instead both teams and fans are pre-occupied with stretched resources.  What we really should be preoccupied with is how to expand MLS rosters and salary caps so that the MLS teams can play their stars for just a bit, throw in the reserves and treat this the same way our visitors do.

For fun.

Seattle Thumps the Revolution: Rub It In, Why Don’t You?

Well, for any New England Revolution fan last night’s 0-3 disaster versus the Seattle Sounders was the salt in an already wounded season. 

But enough is enough already…

It might have been enough that the Revs were outplayed from whistle to whistle.  Revs fans have seen that movie before.  Though when Shalrie is on the field, it hurts that much more.

It might have been enough that Seattle has a Designated Player that adds significant value.  Did you notice “aging” Freddie Ljungberg (born 1977) create a dangerous chance by running right around Chris Tierney (born 1986) at the end line last night?  But, yes, I know… the Revs don’t need a Designated Player, they have a “balanced roster.”

It might have been enough that little Fredy Montero played with skill, guile and trickery that Revolution fans haven’t seen since Clint Dempsey’s days in Foxboro.   At this point, Revs fans don’t really even expect such play.

It might have been enough that Seattle’s goalkeeper Kasey Keller has probably played in more European first-division leagues than New England’s Bobby Shuttleworth has played in professional games.  (Yeah, yeah, injuries…)

It might have been enough to see Taylor Twellman’s ex-strike partner Pat Noonan starting up front for Seattle and looking sharp (though perhaps not as sharp as second year Steve Zakuani), while Taylor Twellman and his large chunk of our salary cap has played about two games in two years.

It could have been enough that the Seattle goals were magnificent displays of skill and/or composure.  Both things that the Revolution had trouble showing anywhere on the field.

Yes, that could have all been enough to make Revolution fans crazy.

But no, that wasn’t where it ended.  It ended with an unmatched atmosphere of ~35,000 fans.  It ended with return-call chants of “Seattle” then “Sounders” reverberating through the stadium.   It ended with an atmosphere that the Revolution are so far from developing that it is hard to imagine its ever coming.

Is this news? No.  Frankly, I’ve opined about Seattle being my “Major League (Soccer) Mistress” before.

But dear Revolution front office… Dear MLS… You need to do something.  And you need to do it soon.

The team is called the “Revolution” but the way things are going what you might get is a revolution from the (already sparse) fans.

And that will be like rubbing salt in the already obvious wound.

Summertime and The Blogging Ain’t Easy

Vacation is upon me and the urge to write (and think) any more than is required has fallen by the wayside.   However, I have stumbled upon a few must-read articles that are worth sharing.   Whether you are a die-hard soccer fan or are perplexed how anyone could be, the first two are worth a look.  (The third is more for the interested soccer fan, I must admit – but has some cool footage linked in it of fans that anyone can appreciate.)

The first two relate to the recent US vs. Mexico game that I touched on in “USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream.”   Bill Simmons of ESPN wrote the first, which is called “Sporting emotions at the highest pitch.”  Simmons is not a soccer-mad writer by any stretch, and even described soccer as “a sport I have never totally liked and even actively hated at times.”   However, his descriptions of the experience in Mexico City, in Azteca and as a pseudo-US Soccer fan are astounding.  He also makes Soccer comparisons to US Sports that, well, I could never make since SportsCenter doesn’t usually bump Fox Soccer Report  off my TV.    Simmons describes a key moment in the game by writing: “It was one of those sports moments when you wish they could have stopped the proceedings right there for 20 minutes, just so we could soak in what happened and dream about all the possibilities.”   It’s a wonderful read.

The second that relates to the US v Mexico game (and is linked to from within the ESPN report) is a report by photo-journalist Douglas Zimmerman.   The pictures and descriptions of his time at Azteca Stadium add a depth of understanding of the magnitude, fervor and pure passion that exists in a game of this nature.

The last article worth mentioning is one that appears to be calling my mistress ugly.  (See Major League (Soccer) Mistress.)   Basically, this excellent blog posting looks at a local Seattle Sounders Portland Timbers comparison.    Portland looks to join MLS in 2011 along with the runaway success that is Seattle this year this blog focuses on the clubs’ shared histories, different success rates (Seattle on the field, Portland in the stands prior this the Sounders break out year) and home-grown (Portland) versus “club-sponsored” (Seattle) supporters.   A few interesting points to walk away from this article with . . . the passion that the Pacific North West seems to have for this sport, the rivalry that will hopefully bring added passion to MLS soon and some background on what has made Seattle’s entrance to MLS so impressive (great marketing.)  The question that one needs to ponder after reading this though: what is the value of home-grown support versus a club-sponsored (marketing?) approach when you are in the big leagues?

Major League (Soccer) Mistress

You need to go read  “American Football”, out of what appears to be a very offbeat Seattle newspaper called “The Stranger.”   Go there now and read it, or finish this first, but you get the idea.

**Please note, there’s some ‘coarse’ language, so the really easily offended might skip it and probably get off the web and grab a book.  Or don’t, just don’t yell at me about it, that’s really all I care about.**

The article is written with verve, some insight and a different perspective than is normally shared on the soccer blog circuit.   Making the point both about the verve and the coarse language . . . the central question posed is “Why should Seattle, of all places, have so raging a boner for so anti-American a pastime?”

However, the low-brow (and leading) question shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a read . . .  it gets a bit more nuanced as it builds some interesting story-lines about why Seattle has adopted soccer, and maybe why others might give it a try themselves.

I have to admit, there’s more than colorful writing and interesting style that attracted me . . . it is also the Seattle/New England ties I see.  That soccer (since it is “un-American”) as easy target for liberal, socialist, anti-American sentiment that fits the Seattle (and New England) stereotype .   That I sit in one book-end of the country (NE) and work daily with the other end forces the issue for me.

Oh, and how’s this for a stereotype . . . “I mean, of COURSE Seattle would be into soccer. It’s almost too perfect. It’s the hybrid car with the Obama bumper sticker of pro sports, a distillation of exactly what people from Des Moines to Des Moines think is so noxious about Seattleites with their fleece jackets and their recumbent bikes and their lattes and their solar-powered condos and their adopted minority babies and their gay-marriage advocacy”) . . .wait, was that Seattle or New England that was being slammed with tongue firmly placed within cheek?

The reality?  This article couldn’t have been written in New England, at least not without a heavy dose of fiction.  While Seattle gets nearly 30K attending a Sounders game, the Revs come away happy with 15K.  Heck that would make us very happy on a non-Beckham night.   The phenomenon being seen in Seattle is not replicated over here.   Not even close.

Perhaps that is the real demon I’m wrestling with.  Yearning for a repeat of the passion and atmosphere I’ve felt in various stadiums around the world (and in the occasional World Cup qualifier here) and my local team cannot win the local hearts and minds or rouse most of the crowd out of their seats very often.

It seems that while I’m married to the Revolution, the Sounders might just be becoming my secret major league mistress.   I retain some level of a clear conscience since I’d never root for them against the Revs, or even to flirt with the passionate (but Eastern Division competitors) Toronto F.C.

The more I think about it, the Sounders (and maybe Toronto F.C.) has become the pin-up model of MLS, with fans of lackluster environments across the league drooling over them like high-school boys glaring at the poster on the back of their bedroom door.   Now we know what the 13 year old girls are feeling when Becks is in town…

(Dear readers and potential blog reading author’s wife, this is written with the acknowledgement that occasional soccer adultery is awkward but tolerated – a tolerance not shared with other adulterous activities.   Nor are such other activities required.)

Loving Barcelona, Missing Brazilian Beauty

True soccer fans know and love the teams that play with joy, skill and imagination.  To non-soccer fans I’m sure that just sounds goofy . . . and it probably somewhat unbelievable that the best play can bring tears to a true fan’s eyes.   (I am guilty as charged.)

It should come as no surprise that this thought comes during / after watching FC Barcelona play the Seattle Sounders.   Seattle looked like a good MLS side (at least in the first half); Barca often looked like a collection of magicians.

Few teams have that kind of ability and style.  Brazil is typically one of them, or perhaps was one of them.  There were times when I watched Brazil, realizing that they simply knew how to play better, prettier and more naturally than anyone else around.  Oh, how times have changed . . . let’s be clear though, Brazil is still one of the best teams that will ever step on a soccer field, as they reminded US fans by coming back from a 2-0 deficit to win the Confederations Cup at our expense.   At the end of the day, quality still matters.

But today it’s different . . . the Brazilian game is now efficient, focused, even pragmatic.   This Sports Illustrated piece digs into some reasons why that might be.    It is an interesting read that challenges us to consider whether tactics are driving out the ‘special’ players, or the dearth of such players is forcing certain tactics.   A similar conundrum exists with other clubs and countries . . .  despite spending obscene amounts of money (and the stated goal of its owner), Chelsea still plays efficiently, but not beautifully.   It also touches on the continued challenge for the US to find an attractive “style” of play . . .

When the US played Brazil in the Confederations Cup, I was (not surprisingly) supporting the US team . . . but cheering for Brazil when they play anyone but the USA (and maybe my adopted-by-marriage Colombia . . .) was historically never a difficult undertaking.  They didn’t just earn that respect, they demanded it by embarrassing teams around them with skill, control and a complete lack of the usual predictability that most teams operate in.

However, there have been times now — the last Copa America final comes to mind — where the opposite was true, where it was Brazil playing counterattacking, largely negative soccer.   In that game I supported Argentina, who played beautifully.  But lost.   I would hope the Argentine fans were proud of that display and I hope the Brazilian fans are demanding better.

Until a better Brazil reappears, thank you FC Barcelona for reminding me what this game can look like.

Selling Soccer and Stalled Italian Journeys

Not so fast Ricardo . . .

It seems I may have jumped the gun on Ricardo Clark’s impending transfer to Livorno.   No Short Corners is reporting that he has the offer but it isn’t a done deal.   If you haven’t my read my “Forza America” yet, please do so with this liberal dditions of “ifs” . . .

Supporter’s Club (Brought To You By Soccer Soap Box)

OK, I’m not about to be sponsoring any supporter’s clubs . . . but the idea promoted here that companies could be bypassing sports sponsorships to instead directly align to/sponsor major fan groups is very interesting.    Those groups are influential and cut out the middle-men when wanting to directly reach your end customers.   There are significant risks of course, since such fan groups will undoubtedly be interested in the funding and perks, but will have little tolerance of the rules that might be tied to them.  Of course, no sport seems to have more vocal and organized fan groups than soccer.  The article refers to one of the primary US National Team supporter groups the “American Outlaws” and their ever growing presence on the US Soccer scene.

Selling (MLS) Stuff

Sponsoring fan groups is all well and good . . . but I doubt the official soccer merchandising will ever slow.   This New York Times blog (thanks to the very interesting FootieBusiness) talks about merchandising efforts by the league, including the mini-takeover of the “World’s Largest Toy Store” in NYC.   A few notes of interest . . . the top three teams in terms of sponsorship Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto F.C. – Seattle and Toronto off of their amazing local fan support, and L.A. clearly because of Beckham.    The Red Bulls are 6th in merchandising, but have generally been terrible on the field . . . a statement to the potential that remains out of reach in that market.

While MLS makes it clear that they have trouble accurately tracking player-specific merchandise, it comes as no surprise that David Beckham, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Freddie Ljungberg, and Juan Pablo Angel would lead the way.   That most of them are “Designated Players” is not a coincidence . . . and makes the ideas recently posted over at the Daily Soccer Fix to increase the rule’s use all the more critical.