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A US reporter on Barca, Becks, big crowds... and Everton

By Mike Gaynes :  07/08/2009 :  Comments (15) :
Not many American sports columnists really understand soccer, but the San Francisco Chronicle has two guys who do. One of them is Ray Ratto, who wrote a piece this morning on Barcelona's game here tomorrow night against Chivas. (I can't go because my own team has a playoff game at 4, dammit.) Ratto compares Barca with the Boston Red Sox (and Real Madrid with the Yankees) and muses on why Americans turn out more for international friendlies than for MLS, and why we've become so contemptuous of Becks.

Best of all, he lists Everton among the Best of the Best, right between Chelsea and Real, which makes him a wise and discerning pundit indeed. The whole article is at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/08/07/SP771952TG.DTL, but here's an excerpt:

"Barca.... is currently the best club team in the world. It won its own league, the Spanish Cup and best of all, the Champions League title. It has Messi and Xavi and Bojan Krkic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry. It has a coach with the very cool name of Pep Guardiola (while we get a guy named Tom Cable), and it plays in the even cooler-named Camp Nou (while we get AT&T Park).

"See, as much as we like to say we are moved by things that bear the Made in the USA label, what we really like is things that bear the This Is the Best Stuff There Is label. We like Big Names, capital-B, capital-N, and we like Big Events, capital-B, capital-E. It's why Seattle, which draws the biggest crowds in MLS, drew twice as many people (almost 67,000) to see Barca on Wednesday night, and why Barca drew 93,000 to play David Beckham and the LA Galaxy at the Rose Bowl on Sunday.

"And it is why Beckham, a big name on a small stage, was the latest in a long series of soccer disasters here. His heart wasn't in anything but the check, he played on a bad team, and once you've seen him on a bad team once, you've pretty much had your fill of him.

"On the other hand, there is Barcelona. And if it isn't Barcelona, it would be Manchester United or Chelsea or Everton or Real Madrid or any of a dozen other superb teams playing in wildly superior leagues with long track records of success. The Best Stuff There Is. And if MLS pales by comparison, and if the ratings for those MLS games are flat-lined as they have been, well, soccer is growing anyway."

Reader Comments

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Michael Kenrick
Editorial Team
1   Posted 07/08/2009 at 21:01:05

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Ya gotta wonder when such huge crowds turn out in the US — although noticeably NOT for Everton games. Holding the MLS All-Stars game in a tiny 20k stadium in Nowheresville, Mormonland, was probably a smart move... otherwise we’d have all been embarrassed by the small crowd.

The Seattle attendances are simply astounding. 62,000 I think for Chelsea playing the Seattle Sounders, and the 66,862 to watch Barca hammer them 4-0 on Wednesday. Probably just as well they didn’t schedule a game against Everton!

The massive crowds demonstrate there is an appetite for real football, and the level of interest in soccer amongst a small but non-zero number of regular people in the US reflects the grassroots explosion at junior levels. It will take many more years for this to develop to higher levels as many young players presumably still switch to the more traditional American games (Netball, Throwball and Rounders!) as teenagers / young adults.
Brian Christopher
2   Posted 07/08/2009 at 23:05:36

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"Ya gotta wonder when such huge crowds turn out in the US — although noticeably NOT for Everton games. Holding the MLS All-Stars game in a tiny 20k stadium in Nowheresville, Mormonland, was probably a smart move... otherwise we’d have all been embarrassed by the small crowd."


Probably just as well they didn’t schedule a game against Everton!

You seem so proud to be an Everton ’supporter’!!
Mike Gaynes
3   Posted 07/08/2009 at 23:52:26

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Spent a lot of time over here in the Colonies, Michael? I thought not. Your ignorance of the American sports fan is predictably comprehensive.

The grassroots explosion you speak of has been going on for 30 years, and there has been little detectable increase in the interest in US pro soccer. The reason is simple — what Americans watch is unrelated to what we played as a kid. Fan allegiance for favorite "Netball, Throwball and Rounders" (and don’t forget Iced Puckey!) teams is established early and deeply ingrained among people who never seriously participated in any of those games. Pro soccer will never develop to higher levels here because the four established, North American-originated sports (none of them strange foreign games, chump!) suck up the fan interest, money and media attention. The young soccer players don’t "switch" to the traditional sports — as fans, they’re already there.

As to the MLS, they didn’t schedule the All-Star game for Utah because Everton wouldn’t draw. They scheduled it there because it was Utah’s turn. Put Everton here in San Francisco and we double that crowd with ease. Everton isn’t Barca, but we definitely wouldn’t have been embarrassed.

David Barks
4   Posted 08/08/2009 at 02:02:14

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Mike Gaynes,

I have to respond to your post. First off, Michael can correct me if I’m wrong and of course speak for himself, but I get the impression that not only has Michael spent considerable time in the US, but he might actually live in "the colonies". But I don’t know that, I just remember him commenting on a Nascar driving event he went to last season and it doesn’t seem like something you would come all the way over from England to do.

As for the popularity of the game in the US. It is actually growing and will continue to grow. One of the main things that stopped it’s growth was the fact that there was no recognizable or "reputable" professional league. The MLS has its flaws but at least it provides kids with a vision of becoming a professional footballer.

The other thing that has changed is ESPN, or rather the attitude of ESPN. It’s the largest sports network in the US and it has finally seen the money that is to be made in football and is now covering the sport. So football actually has a platform on TV now, whereas for the years before about 2007 there was no football to be found other than European matches at 7 AM on a Saturday morning. So the game does indeed have a future in the US and will continue to grow.

Ciarán McGlone
5   Posted 08/08/2009 at 13:26:56

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Any pundit who puts us in the same bracket as Chelsea, United, Barcelona and Madrid clearly hasn’t a clue...

As much as I’d love it to be true... it’s delusional.
Michael Kenrick
Editorial Team
6   Posted 08/08/2009 at 18:18:48

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Mike, Sorry for getting your hackles up in defence of the all-American sportsfan... When I was actually talking about the interest of the active players who play soccer as kids but are less likely to stay in the sport, even if they are very good. I think that is the part that is changing, and I suspect that is at least in part an explanation for the massive crowds at Big Name friendlies in the US.

But NOT, and I’ll repeat this for the benefit of those as don’t want to hear, at Everton games:

2009 — MLS All-Stars: 20,120 ... River Plate: 15,800
2008 — Chicgo Fire: 9,125... Coloado Rapids: 10,278
2007 — Real Salt Lake 12,221
2006 — Columbus Crew: 10,259... Club America: 11,467

Those are pretty poor attendances figures. Perhaps these latest crowds reflect a newer wave of immigrants of recent foreign extraction, far less keen than their parents were to give up their football heritage and adopt the popular sports of their New World instead?

It’s only in the last 10-15 that non-US football has had much exposure through the media and of course the internet. Prior to that, ignorance was almost total, except for tiny pockets of ardent fans reading World Soccer and watching the odd English league game on PBS of all places.
Mike Gaynes
7   Posted 08/08/2009 at 18:12:18

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David, I would definitely agree that the popularity of soccer in the US continues to grow. My point was that the popularity of PRO soccer in the US is essentially static. MLS TV ratings remain dismal, and I don’t think they will ever improve.

When people here watch soccer, they don’t watch MLS. My TV is tuned all day to Setanta USA, Fox Soccer Channel and GOL, where I have a choice of EPL, German, French, Mexican and South American league games at all hours. I never watch MLS games, and of my 18 teammates, only one watches MLS, because the level is just too low. At our games, all you hear is conversation about the EPL, European Cup and the World Cup qualifiers, never MLS.

I would also strongly dispute your ESPN perspective. ESPN does not cover soccer, not at all, except for the US National Team programs. ESPN aired exactly one regular-season MLS game this year and recently secured the rights to show some MLS games in the UK next season — but NOT, interestingly enough, in the US. Only Spanish-speaking ESPN Deportes carries MLS games. On the two main ESPN networks, the X Games and the World Series of Poker get far more air time than soccer.

Furthermore, the network virtually ignores the sport in its news coverage. ESPN offers nightly baseball, pro and college football, basketball and hockey shows in season ranging from 20 to 90 minutes long (Baseball Tonight, PrimeTime, NFL Live etc.), but no such show for soccer or MLS, because clearly there is no demand for it. In a typical 90-minute SportsCenter, there will be no soccer scores or highlights unless a particularly spectacular goal makes it into the Top 10, and they obviously haven’t been barraged with complaints from people demanding the goals from the Galaxy/Quakes game. If you want an MLS highlight wrapup, you have to go to FSC. And none of the daily sports talk shows on ESPN — Around the Horn, PTI or Rome — ever touches on MLS, except for Becks stories and occasional sarcasm.

As to kids growing up here with a vision of being professional footballers, I would point out that all our top young players have either skipped MLS or bailed out of it as soon as they could. Only one genuine homegrown star — Donovan — plays in MLS, and that’s only because he failed twice in Europe.


Yes, soccer is growing here, and we’re developing more and more world-class talent capable of playing in any league. But they view MLS as minor-league, and so does the media. And, in my opinion, that’ll never change. Because they’re right.
Mike Gaynes
8   Posted 08/08/2009 at 19:23:55

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OK, Michael, I grant your points, although those attendance figures you quote aren’t really all that dismal in comparison to what those teams drew to league games during those same periods. And I’m not so sure the higher recent attendance figures are due as much to recent immigrants as to longtime foreign residents who always turn out for games if they’re good enough. The USA still has to choose its CONCACAF qualifier venues carefully to prevent their fans being outnumbered by not only Mexico fans, but Costa Rica and Honduras fans as well.

I wasn’t really defending US sports fans, just trying to describe them. After all my years covering sports with CBS and ABC, I have mixed feelings at best about the typical Tailgate Tommy. But it would appear you know the breed better than I realized, because if you remember the old PBS soccer shows, I’m obviously mistaken about your time on this side of the pond. In fact, your reference cracked me up -- I still miss Soccer Made In Germany with the indescribable Toby Charles. Sometimes a couple of us older guys on the team will break out into Toby when we’re watching a game. The younger guys look at us like we’re insane.
Kristian Boyce
9   Posted 08/08/2009 at 19:05:33

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Mike, I’ve lived over in the States for over 7 years now, and currently reside in Washington State along with a certain M Kenrick (so technically he doesn’t spend much time in the original ’Colonies’). A couple of points about the comments made. Yes the All-Star game venue was selected last year, to showcase Utah’s new Stadium, but the participants weren’t chosen until a couple of months ago. The MLS knew that it wouldn’t be a good idea to invite a ’big 4’ or top La Liga team to the game as they knew financially they could make more if being held at a large city stadium. Michael’s right, historically we haven’t had huge crowds at our games, but the exposure we had during that game, plus have 3 Americans on our team in the future should change that if we play out in the States again.

The truth of the matter is that many US Soccer fans were unhappy that Everton were selected as the opponent for the All-Stars. I read many blogs and heard comments that the All-Stars should be playing the Man Utds and Barcas of the world and not teams which the average American have never heard of. I think a lot of this was due to new US soccer fans to the game, who after the Confederations Cup success, thought that the US game domestically was much higher than it is.

There has been a soccer explosion in the country over the last 15-odd years, and the game is hugely popular with the white middle class, in the boys and especially the girls game. The sad fact is that kids' interest wanes when they get into High School at around 14. This is when the other US sports are shoved down their throats and soccer is put to the side.

A big problem is due to the college system. If a kid wants to play soccer professionally the most likely route is to play for a US college and then go into the draft system. If you don’t play soccer in high school or the HS doesn’t offer soccer then you are not going to get scouted to play in college.

Also, not all US Universities have a soccer program. I work for a major NW US College which does not have a male soccer team.

Another problem with the system is the MLS. As it is still a league in its infancy, the money available isn’t very good. The money Beckham is earning over here doesn’t represent the league in the slightest. There are many players in the league that are first-team players in teams that are on about $40,000 a year (about £28,000). Compare this to Baseball players who are signing a the minimum $1-2 million contracts straight out of college.

Soccer will continue to grow, and I predict it will soon overtake Ice Hockey as the 4th most popular sport, but this growth is due to the changing demographics of the country. I live in an area which is predominantly Hispanic, with the majority of residents of Mexican decent. Due to this the HS boys soccer team is ranked number 2 in the country.

The Hispanic minority is predicted in the future to be the majority population in this country. I know this fact worries the traditional sports (US Football, Basketball, Baseball & Hockey) as they can see a dwindling effect happening in the future due to take up and supporting of these sports. This is where, if the US does it right, they can have a hugely successful and powerful football team.

Michael Kenrick
Editorial Team
10   Posted 08/08/2009 at 21:33:49

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Great post, Kristian; thanks — You clearly a lot more about it than I do. If I recall, you’re in Pasco, right? I don’t get over that side of the Cascades very often.

Mike, I wouldn’t compare the attendance figures for US friendlies to the MLS, but ironically, the attendance figures for higher-profile home friendlies Everton have played at Goodison, admittedly against relatively uninspiring teams, have been in that same general range as for those US games.

On that basis, getting over 20,000 inside Goodison on a Friday evening for Malaga was an incredible achievement.
Keith Glazzard
11   Posted 08/08/2009 at 22:33:39

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If "many US Soccer fans were unhappy that Everton were selected as the opponent for the All-Stars" there were a few on TW who said that Malaga weren’t, what?, big enough for last night’s game. Not true, as it also proved in the MLS Everton game. Many people are hostage to the very incomplete picture of life the media feed them (a bit Matrix that — oh dear)

If I can butt into this conversation...

North American soccer could possibly have a ’cycling’ future. It will never displace the big4 of the sports industry, but it will grow and produce champions. Like the cyclists Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong, they will come to Europe to hone their skills and make their fortunes.

I suspect that this is what David Moyes thinks, and I think that this is why we we there, rather than in Asia for marketing purposes, in this preseason.

And white middle class meets Hispanic on the football field? Reminds me of when I was in Guatemala. There were vultures circling above the football pitch. Given to self-doubt, even I knew I wasn’t moving that slowly.
Mike Gaynes
12   Posted 09/08/2009 at 06:46:41

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Kristian, thanks for a thoughtful post. I wasn’t aware of the US discontent over Everton’s selection for the All-Star game, and I think you make some excellent points about the newness of some US soccer fans (especially in Utah) and the unrealistic view of the quality of MLS. And yes, both the college system and the demise of many college programs tend to constrict opportunities.

I would dispute your assertion, however, that young soccer players are giving up the game at 14 because they’re being force-fed other sports in high school. It’s well established that many, many top young players quit the game at that age because of burnout, a result of a perversion in the extensive US youth soccer system. Youth clubs and programs are win-at-any-cost (and ranked accordingly), so gifted kids get locked into positions at age 8, are taught team tactics and conditioning at the expense of individual skills, and travel to dozens of games and tournaments a year. Until the priorities change, or a strong academy system grows up to compete with the clubs, we’ll continue to lose young players this way.

As to pro soccer cracking the top four in US media popularity, I’d bet my mortgage against it. Major Leage Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and even the NHL showcase the best athletes in the world in their sports. MLS does not, and never will. In fact, MLS hasn’t even cracked the top six yet -- golf and auto racing both pull higher TV ratings every weekend than MLS. I really don’t think it’s the player salaries that make the difference. It’s the player quality.

I think Keith is right. The future for US soccer is the most gifted heading overseas, as they already are (Rossi and Subotic to Europe, Castillo and Torres to Mexico). But you touch on a truly huge and unpredictable factor -- the changing demographics of America. I too live in a heavily Latino area, and right now I see more young Mexican immigrants wearing 49ers caps than Cruz Azul or Club America strip. Like you, I’ll be watching to see if that changes in coming years as top pro soccer achieves greater penetration here. I just don’t share your optimism about the future impact of MLS.
Michael Coury
13   Posted 10/08/2009 at 04:13:56

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As a futbal playing colonist, I thought I’d chime in here a bit...

To the attendance figures for Everton games...

Only the Chicago Fire game was played in what I would call a Major US Market - AND that game was on a Wednesday (I remember because I wanted to go the game despite getting married that following Saturday) - I think the Crew game was also during the week... not exactly the most accessible times...

The huge latino populations of Chicago, California, and NY guarantee 60k+ attendance numbers for any Spanish speaking side.... I would say really only Man U has any kind of draw here stateside and that is mostly because of Becks and the "World Wide Leader" sniffing the ass of Man U.... It sounds like to me that the WWL will start to carry more games and as the US fan becomes "better educated" Everton will enjoy a bit more pull... Remember though DM likes to bring Everton to the states because the players can walk around totally incognito :)

Now as a player - I can confirm the burn out factor of many a lad as the best player on our team in HS walked away from footie after he graduated despite having his pick of DI schools - he had been playing, quite possibly year round and on more than one team for the better part of 10 years and had enough... Travel soccer in the US is just as much as a status symbol in this country as the McMansions and Escalades.... travel soccer at the higher levels can run anywhere from $1k - $10k a year before travel expenses.... and there is not a lot of in between; you are either on a travel team or on one of the local community teams with dad's coaching — there is very little middle ground.

Speaking of which, any of you Brits can make a MINT coming over here and coaching these "elite" teams — they seem pay extra if the coach can talk with a British accent... true soccer coaching ability is strictly optional.

The other very important thing to remember is, for the most part, all of the best athletes in this country are playing Basketball or Football - Imagining someone like Chad Johnson or Terrel Owens as a soccer striker would be AMAZING....as soon as American kids figure out there is money to be made playing soccer. the better athletes will stick with soccer longer.

Which brings me to my last point: to everyone who is dogging the MLS...The MLS I think at this point is 10 years old... and personally I am scared of the rate of expansion as well as the designated player rule... What a lot of Americans don’t realize (It's not really their fault.... we are all about instant gratification here...) is that the Top Flight of English Futball has been around for nearly 100 years. I hope and pray the leadership of the MLS know and understand that it could take 100 years for soccer to be king here, and I think it has a shot — I just hope they don’t try to short circuit the process — let it grow organically, let's get 32 teams in the league and then maybe they can split it into A & B (unlikely considering the "franchising fees" and "stadia costs" but maybe the USL and MLS will combine and that will get the ball rolling on promotion / relegation...). All I’m saying really is give soccer some time now that it has caught the attention of the mainstream — and it has.
Tom Lazarus
14   Posted 10/08/2009 at 16:44:12

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I’m American, and in addition to all the top leagues I watch MLS every chance I get. I also support my local 2nd division side by attending games, watching them on-line, on local TV or even (gasp) listening to them on the radio. It’s called civic and national pride. I even watch the women’s pro league. It may not be Real v Barca or the Merseyside derby, but it’s all football and it’s all good as far as I’m concerned. Our leagues may be crap compared to those of Europe, but they’re ours, and I want them to succeed and someday excell. Thus they have my uncritical support.
Barry Page
15   Posted 11/08/2009 at 01:28:55

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Hmmmmm, is pretty much all I can say to some of the comments written here. I read many articles that stated our MLS all-stars team was happy to be playing Everton and I can assure you that I know of numerous Everton fans who either live or were born in the US. The stadium was in fact over filled (People were standing) and some even suggested that a bigger stadium could have been filled. Most of the fans really enjoyed the game and found it well worth their time.

Yes, I accept that Everton are no Barcelona, but you have to start somewhere in spreading the word about Everton FC. I watch most of Evertons games over here in the USA and the fact that Howard, probably one of the best keepers in the world at the moment, plays for them heightens interest!

Many people also know of Everton FC in South America, and of course we know that there are a number of Evertons that have come into existance since the tour we did many, many years ago.

I tell others of the team I support called Everton FC and their rivalry with Liverpool and they think its cool. They especially love thef fact that there is this team that spends virtually nothing yet is up there challenging!

On another note, remember that most people over here in the US have heard of Liverpool because of the Beatles, and not because of Liverpool FC as some Liverpool fans would have you believe.

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