There's a neighbor on my block who professes to be a soccer fan, yet openly states he “won’t cross the street” to go see an MLS game. The term ‘Eurosnob’ has been coined to describe such fans, who maintain such an attitude and pay no attention whatsoever to MLS. Let’s face it — MLS has intense competition from the major leagues in Europe and South America. Each beautiful game is accessible from the comfy confines of our living room couches, via innumerable satellite and cable TV channels, internet soccer sites and live streaming from around the globe.
Obviously there is no comparison between the leagues in the level of finance, facilities and attendance, and while MLS coverage is increasing, crowds are modest at most MLS games compared to other professional sports in the US. Even big city newspaper sports pages have fewer column inches devoted to soccer – on their web sites you will have to drill down through the "Other Sports" tab to get to "Soccer", where you will probably read about David Beckham's kids' school reports.
So, I can't say I was terribly shocked when, earlier in the year, I read Pete Ratajczak’s blog on Center Line Soccer about his old friend, who “was at 5-2 vs LA”, had been to Salt Lake City for a World Cup qualifier, and yet hadn’t heard of Chris Wondolowski. I will refer said fan to Grant Wahl’s article in Sports Illustrated that details how Wondo supplemented his MLS salary last season by coaching youth football. Wondo believes that his coaching efforts were rewarded with a new perspective on the strategy of the game and led to his most successful season to date: eighteen goals in twenty-eight appearances and the 2010 Golden Boot.
I thought back to Wondo’s golden-boot-clinching-off-the-bench-hat-trick against Chivas USA on a chilly mid-week evening late last season. As we meandered back to the car park, Wondo was signing autographs for and chatting with the fans, all the while being trailed back to the dressing room by a gaggle of what I assumed to be his under-11 soccer protégés. As a fan, it is stories like his that make me genuinely admire the sheer determination of the average MLS player to eke out a living at the game he loves.
Eurosnobs often make the argument that the quality of the game in the US does not match up to that in Europe. Even supposing that statement is true, if they could bury their preconceptions and come out to Buck Shaw, they would discover the appeal of a live MLS game. MLS is never going to be the same as EPL, La Liga or Serie A, but I really appreciate the differences — and the biggest difference for me is that I feel much more connected to the Quakes (and therefore MLS) soccer than I ever did to football in England.
- Connection with the fans: Where else can you get twenty games of a professional sport for only $240; if my calculator's working properly that’s $12 a game (cheapest A's plans run $38 per game and Raiders $26). For a bit more outlay you will get you seats right on the halfway line, albeit aluminum bleachers presently. I've settled in there as firm friends with my season ticket buddies; we've travelled to away games and hung out in the off-season to watch EPL and World Cup games. Over three and a half seasons on the bleachers we’ve developed a diverse vocabulary to comment on the referee's visual acuity — mostly lack thereof.
- Connection with the game: Even the largest television screen and wraparound sound system can't reproduce the sights, sounds and smells of the game. There’s no amount of exquisitely hi-def camera coverage that displays the entire formation on the field. I can see the plays build from farther back – such as a sudden turn of speed originating a player’s run down the wing – and are often missed on television. My own seats are so close to the pitch that on a cool night you can smell the grass cutting up after fifteen minutes, and you can hear the players call for the ball or warn 'man on.' Of course, if I can hear the players, then I assume that those ‘visual acuity’ comments I alluded to in the previous paragraph can also be heard on the field – mission accomplished!
- Connection with the team: At EPL games the fans are completely separated from the players — a tinted window on the car (or team bus), a padlocked gate and a burly policemen on a trusty steed are placed between fans and players outside the ground. In contrast, the MLS’s leading scorer is readily accessible to fans for autographs and handshakes; one simply leans over the railing as he makes his way from the dressing rooms, across the practice field and into the stadium. Last season I was able to welcome Khari Stephenson to the Quakes after his first outing last year and talk to Ramiro Corrales about how his injury was progressing. Once, for a fleeting moment, on his way from the parking lot into the changing rooms, I even saw Bobby Convey smile at a small child (right next to the definition of ‘game face’ there’s a picture of Convey in his kit).
- Connection with the league: Ironically the connection the fans have with the league is fueled by its rivalries; the California Clasico against the LA Galaxy has always been the highlight of the Earthquakes schedule. There's a nod to the NASL origins of the Quakes and Seattle Sounders with the establishment of the Heritage Cup. This season with the arrival of expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver there’s a regular triangle of death in the Cascades. In my opinion, the most captivating games are to be found on the West coast — these games are built on rivalries with a history longer than the existence of MLS itself.
It’s a fascinating era in which we find ourselves, observing the continual development of MLS. The youngest league in men’s professional sport is expanding the number of teams, foreign stars are arriving who draw new fans and media attention, and attendance is increasing despite a tough economy. It’s not all plain sailing: While MLS faces the challenge of converting Eurosnob fans to the American version of the beautiful game; it also needs to hold on to its home grown players, the best of which are being drawn to the European leagues as well.
Sure, I'll keep watching Premier League football matches on television on Saturday mornings with a steaming cup of strong coffee, and a slice or two of burned toast, but I'm always looking forward to my next Quakes soccer game. Yes, even when the team is in the midst an eleven-game winless streak — a challenge for even the most diehard Quakes fans to keep smiling — for me, the experience of a live game always prevails.