One of the joys of visiting England and taking in the soccer scene is that you realize how wonderful it is — and how different it is from the conventional wisdom of those who think the version in the USA and Canada can’t compare.
My trip to Reading’s Madejski Stadium and my happy purchase of When Saturday Comes at non-import prices reminded me of a few things …
1. English soccer doesn’t turn its back on kids. Reading had a small “family stand,” but honestly, the whole place is family-friendly. The ample concession stands had plenty of options for young ones, along with the beer that has to be consumed in the concourse. Outside the stadium, mascots roamed about, and kids could take a few kicks to see how fast or accurate they were.
At halftime, a youth team piled onto the field and split in two. On each half of the condensed field, players took turns taking a pass from a coach and taking a shot against a goalkeeper. They called this exercise “American-style penalties.”
2. English supporters aren’t all that demonstrative. The Rose City Riveters posted a thoughtful piece on women’s soccer supporter culture, lamenting that their percussion and chanting wasn’t enough to turn all the kids at Sky Blue’s Yurcak Field into authentic supporters.
First of all, give the Riveters full credit for turning the Proclaimers’ classic tune into a chant about hauling a drum 3,000 miles. That’s beautiful. And it would fit right in at the Madejski, where Reading supporters answered Leicester City supporters’ boasts about being promoted to the Premier League with a reminder that Reading holds the record of 106 points in the Championship — one that Leicester can’t quite catch. (A couple also yelled that Leicester will be back in the Championship again after one season up, and if Leicester doesn’t come up with some skill to match its speed, they’ll be right. The ball goes inside the touchlines, guys.)
Drums? Maybe one. Tifo? Nah — Leicester had a couple of banners that said “Leicester City” just so you’d know which stand was the away stand. Standing? Against the rules.
American and Canadian fans really shouldn’t be self-conscious about their supporters culture. We’ve taken bits from everyone — chanting from England, drums and tifo from elsewhere, sawing giant logs from … well, that’s unique. And that’s good! D.C. United’s supporters groups set the standard in the early days, and now everyone’s adding a twist.
3. You don’t need Liverpool or Man City to have an entertaining match. Leicester City will be in the Premier League next year. Reading is still trying to scratch its way into the playoffs. But these teams are far from fantastic. Didn’t matter. Maybe it wasn’t terrific TV, but it was a fun game to watch in person.
And the next time I read some “I tried to give MLS a chance by watching D.C. United play New England, but it wasn’t as good as Liverpool-Arsenal” piece, I’m going to be either violently ill or just plain violent. I went all the way to England and watched a Championship game because I couldn’t get Premier League tickets (a little sad, given that I was staying within walking distance of Arsenal), and I enjoyed it. You can get in your bloody car and go to a live soccer game. If you only have an NASL or USL Pro team within driving distance, go to that. Get over yourself.
4. England has some crap-ass owners. You think MLS teams are alone in trying to make money? Consider Blackpool. WSC has a shocking piece about Blackpool supporters’ protests against their majority shareholders, the Oyston family. They’ve paid themselves an awful lot of money. They’re making loans from the club to “various loss-making companies owned by the Oyston family,” the story reads. Investment in a new training ground? Forget it.
Now consider this — MLS teams don’t have a century of stability on which to draw. Blackpool shared in Premier League TV money a few years ago. MLS is still building its infrastructure from scratch and still recouping the money sunk into the sport in the mid-90s and early 2000s. So you can excuse MLS owners for trying to pull out of the red. What’s Blackpool’s excuse for squeezing pennies?
5. English clubs’ youth pipelines are clogged. From WSC: “Following the departure of Emmanuel Frimpong this January, just two players from Arsenal’s 2009 Youth League and Cup double-winning side remain contracted to the club.”
6. Debt-ridden clubs face extinction. WSC tells the sad story of Bashley, a non-League club that may be next in a “swathe of winding-up orders” as HM Revenue & Customs pursues footballing debts.
7. The Bundesliga is lopsided. Bayern Munich ran away with it this year. Ratings are dropping. Oliver Kahn suggested “US-style play-offs” to make things more interesting. (WSC story: “Competition time.”)
8. The Championship teams are bickering over Financial Fair Play. Is everyone actually adhering to it? Can a team playing under FFP in the Championship turn around the next year and compete in the Premier League?
None of these problems will kill the game. The point here is that simple solutions don’t solve everything. You can’t just “be like England” and expect issues of finances and fairness to go away. MLS is struggling with the balance of parity and excellence. So is everyone else.
We’ll address MLS a little later this week. It’s a CBA year, you know.
WSC has several other good reads, including one in which a Scottish university team now has the opportunity to win promotion into the professional ranks. Tempting to wonder what would happen if Akron had that opportunity, isn’t it?