Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

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More than One United: A Call to Arms for MLS

In Soccer on July 27, 2011 at 1:25 PM

I love soccer.

I love United.

There is only one United.

I love the Premiership.

And I love Major League Soccer.

I mean that sincerely.  I really do.

Those jokes, about MLS goals being “touchdowns” and MLS fans not speaking English are old, tired—and inapplicable. MLS matches drew on average 17,000 fans in 2010, a number that will increase substantially this season because of new facilities and perpetually-sold out expansion teams in Vancouver and Portland. The enthusiasm of those Pacific Northwest MLS crowds is incredible—35,000 a game, all in colors, singing, chanting and waving scarves.  Traveling en masse to away games.  Those games look and sound like Premier League or Bundesliga matches, except for the accent.

And remember—this is all happening in two cities where the NBA failed (Seattle and Vancouver).

MLS TV ratings are steady, if not overwhelming, despite being filler programming on ESPN2 on the worst night of television: Fridays. (Imagine how much better it could be if ESPN put more of its marketing machine behind the league.) Yet it feels like there’s a stigma against MLS: You have to have a European team as your favorite to be considered a “real” soccer fan.

Which frankly is (expletive deleted). We as American soccer fans should be humiliated.

For decades, in the pre-Internet era, we were starved for more than the skimpy (at best) coverage of European and Latin American leagues.  Our lack of knowledge, stemming from no domestic league, was severe.

But we endured.  We grew to love the game despite the traditional powers thumbing their noses at an “American soccer fan.”  The 1994 World Cup on American soil converted many of us, including me.

And now, when we have a viable, entertaining domestic league with compelling, American superstar players—we meekly re-colonialize our soccer passions.

Why can’t someone be accepted as a genuinely knowledgeable soccer fan—and have MLS be the league he follows? When someone asks you who your favorite soccer team is, you should say with pride: “DC United!” or “LA Galaxy!” or whatever MLS team is your favorite. And if the person starts to snicker at that response, you should say, uhm, something that rhymes with “duck shoe.”

We should be proud of our league.  MLS has been a godsend to us American soccer fans by bringing the game home.  Our steadily-improving national team is now almost exclusively trained by MLS clubs, though stars may parlay national team success into more lucrative stints in Europe. I’d argue that the quality of play in the MLS would make it the fifth or sixth best league in Europe, top-to-bottom.  Sure, England, Spain, Germany and Italy are far better, but I’d argue MLS is close in quality to the French Ligue 1. None of the other European leagues come close.  The leagues in Scotland, Portugal, Holland and Turkey are too top heavy; Russian teams benefit from the weather too much.

And we are attracting talent, players that want to come to play here not because of the paycheck, but because of the quality of play.  Say what you want about David Beckham coming here at the “end” of his career—Los Angeles revived his career in less than two years, with no less a suitor than AC Milan trying to get him back to Europe afterward. Thierry Henry left Barcelona for New York with plenty of miles left; surely any number of top-flight European teams could have signed him for more than what New York offered.

We at Perfecting the Upset are as much to blame for this neo-colonialization as anyone else: If you look at our Allegiances, you’ll notice that under soccer, there are no MLS teams represented. [Ed: Prior to this article, there were two MLS teams in the “Additional Allegiances” column, however.]  Yes, I know that next to my name is a Manchester United logo—and proudly does it reside there. But I was a United fan before MLS was born; World Cup 1994 made me a soccer fan, then my RSN made me a United fan in the same year by showing them every week until MLS started. Plus, I lived in England for most of my career, where my love for United was integrated with access to Old Trafford.

But I must confess that when I joined Perfecting the Upset, I didn’t even ask our esteemed editor Rahat to put a DC United logo on my allegiances.

(In fairness, part of the reason was that I didn’t want the extra workload.  But in a way, that proves my point, too.)

It’s time for us American soccer fans to be proud of our league.  We should proudly say that we watch MLS, and that we support our MLS clubs wholeheartedly.

I’ll go first: Please add DC United to my Allegiances.

There is are only one two United(s).

[Ed: MLS fans are also encouraged to check out Bradley Freedman’s “That Sounds a Bit Dodgy” on MLS importing announcers.]

A Goodbye to Scholes and the Youth of United

In England, Soccer on July 19, 2011 at 7:00 AM

When Paul Scholes first joined Manchester United’s youth academy at the age of 14, the trainers had concerns about his size and were hoping for a growth spurt.

A couple of decades, 676 United first-team appearances and 150 goals later, United’s trainers are still wondering about that growth spurt.

Both Real Madrid/France star Zinedine Zidane and current Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola are known to have credited Scholes as the greatest midfielder of his generation.

Every United fan has a favorite Scholes moment, whether for United or England.  For me, it was the way that Scholes elevated his game whenever the United fixtures list said “Liverpool,” “Manchester City,” “Arsenal” or “Aston Villa.”

He terrorized the opponents that United fans love to see terrorized.  His 30-yard volley against Villa in 2006 is still a YouTube favorite.   He terrorized Argentina star Ariel Ortega at the 2002 World Cup, playing for England, earning man of the match honors.

His retirement, coupled with that of Gary Neville earlier this season, leaves just Ryan Giggs in the United squad from that fabled Class of 1992: Gary’s brother Phil is still at Everton (if only just), Nicky Butt ended his career as a Newcastle United loanee to Birmingham City five years ago and a largely-unknown midfielder named David Beckham apparently is collecting paycheques here in Los Angeles.

(Digression: ever notice how a celebrity’s biggest fan will never meet him, but someone who can’t recognize him will get a great photo opportunity?  I had lunch with my friend John a few months ago.  He said “So I was just at the Apple store in Century City, and David Beckham was there.” I asked John if he talked to Becks, and he said, “No, I didn’t really know which one he was.  But somebody told me he was there.”  I thought not being able to recognize Beckham was a mathematical impossibility at this point, like dividing by zero or taking the square root of a negative number.)

Scholes’ retirement also makes a burgeoning hole at United even more glaring.  The Class of 1992 are so-called because they represented players who not only grew up in United’s youth academy, they also—bar Beckham—grew up as kids in the greater Manchester area: Scholes in Langley, the Nevilles in Bury, Butt in Gorton and Giggs in Salford (via Cardiff, hence the allegiance to Wales).

Since then, United’s youth academy has provided scant help to the first team.  Wes Brown and John O’Shea have developed into decent role players, and the jury is probably still out on the recent harvest including Federico Macheda, Darren Gibson, and Johnny Evans.

But it’s very thin after that.

True, United aren’t the only Premiership squad in this quandary.  But just because other title contenders struggle with this question doesn’t mean that it’s just a “sign of the modern era.”

The youth academy does more for United than just produce quality footballers.  It produces evangelists for the squad.  Athletes always talk about how excited they are to play against the teams they grew up hating as fans; the youth academy instills that spirit into the players at a young age.

Gary Neville famously jeered at the Kop after scoring a goal at Anfield.  Anti-Liverpool is in his blood, he later would admit, causing him to elevate his game against the Scousers.  Can you imagine any of United’s current back four saying that today, in their Serbian, French or Brazilian accents?

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying as xenophobia.  Far from it: United’s scout team has done a masterful job bringing in players from around the world.

Nobody knew the scrawny teenager Sir Alex Ferguson signed from Sporting Lisbon would turn into Cristiano Ronaldo.

How many teams passed on a little fellow from Mexico who ended up stealing the starting striker’s job—from the guy who led the Premiership in goals, Dimitar Berbatov?

Even the fabled Class of 1992 needed star imports, including Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke, Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer, to achieve the haul of trophies they did.

But what made United ferocious was the combination of global star power coupled with the club’s values being instilled in the first team’s leadership from a young age.  It’s what propelled United to be equally motivated against Reading as Real Madrid, against Bolton as Barcelona.

It’s the edge that is currently missing at Old Trafford.  Scholes’ retirement makes it all the more acute.

Now Playing in Washington: A Discount for Ovie

In Hockey, Loyalty, Washington DC on July 14, 2011 at 7:00 AM

When Tomas Vokoun signed with the Washington Capitals in the first week of free agency this summer, the 35-year-old Czech native wasn’t shy about telling anyone that would listen that he took a significant cut in pay to play for the Capitals.

Wait, what was that?

Vokoun made $6.5 million last season with Florida, the last year of a multi-year contract with the Panthers.  He turned down multi-year, more lucrative offers from the Panthers to make less than a quarter of that this season, $1.5 million for one year in DC.

I’m not sure I followed that.  The more lucrative offer was where he was already playing?

See, this is a foreign concept for D.C. sports fans, especially Capitals fans.  For decades, we watched stars take less money to avoid the Beltway.

None of this was ever confirmed by the players, but many high-profile hockey stars were known to have turned down more lucrative offers from the Capitals to play elsewhere in the 80s and 90s (nobody can fault players for avoiding D.C. in the 70s).

I never faulted the players who turned down bigger deals from the Capitals to stay where they were.  Sometimes, the right decision for your family isn’t the most lucrative one for you; besides, a million to a guy making multiple millions for decades isn’t as much as it is to us common folk.

I also understood that some players turned down D.C.’s bonanzas to play in their hometowns.  Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Detroit and Boston have made a veritable paper fortune banking on this hometown discount.

(It’s worth noting that Potomac, Maryland native Jeff Halpern gave the Capitals a hometown discount for his services next season—that is definitely the first time in history that’s happened!  But it won’t be the last: some D-I college hockey scouts say that D.C. is now a must-visit on the recruiting trail.  That’s really exciting to guys like me who grew up playing youth hockey in the area.  And I don’t regret this not being part of my club hockey career—my position of Left Bench was already occupied at most schools.)

I was perpetually frustrated by the players who signed with new teams and took less money than what the Capitals were offering.  In the 80s and 90s, the Capitals were a regular playoff team, including a 19-year run of post-season play, but were always just one or two players away from jumping the big hurdle.

There were flashes of brilliance: Dale Hunter clinching the series for the Caps, after D.C. trailed the Flyers 3-games-to-1, with an incredible overtime goal in Game 7 in 1988; the run to the conference final in 1989, when the Druce was Loose to knock out the vaulted Rangers and pushing the Caps further than they had ever gone before; the run to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 against Detroit, when all of the pieces just seemed to fall into place until Esa Tikkanen deked Chris Osgood but slid the puck wide of the empty net in Game 2.

The fan base was loyal and motivated—sure, it wasn’t Toronto or Boston or even St. Louis, but surely D.C. was a better stop than, say, a dying Minnesota North Stars franchise, the remote village of Quebec City (to non-francophones, anyway) or Hartford, the insurance capital of America.

What would have happened if just one of those big-name stars gave Washington a chance?

And then it happened.  A bona fide superstar gave D.C. and the Capitals that chance: Alexander Ovechkin.  In a now-infamous article, The Hockey News suggested at the start of the 2007-08 campaign that the Capitals should trade Ovechkin and rebuild with depth instead of relying on one star.  Traditional theory held that Ovie needed out of D.C. to start building his legacy.  Instead, Ovie bunked tradition and signed a 13-year, $124 million deal to essentially pledge his entire career to Washington.  That signature single-handedly put D.C. on the proverbial hockey map.  Who wouldn’t want to play with the game’s most exciting star?

Capitals fans know this part of the story already: Building sells out—perpetually; Caps make the playoffs—perpetually; Caps become the darlings of the league and the city, and NBC’s Al Michaels notes on Sunday Night Football that there are more Capitals jerseys than Redskins jerseys in the stands at FedEx Field.

And now this: Jason Arnott waives his no-trade clause at last year’s trade deadline—for one team.  Tomas Vokoun takes a 76.6% paycut to play in D.C.

I still have to pinch myself just thinking about it.