Who needs Becks? The MLS will thrive on the runaway success of Seattle, Vancouver and Portland
On Sunday afternoon, I stood with the Angel City Brigade behind the goal at the Home Depot Center to watch LA Galaxy play Manchester City.
In front of us, a man with a neckerchief and a loudhailer stood on a podium with his back to the pitch and orchestrated the chanting.
But the fans made plenty of noise, particularly when Mario Balotelli got into his slanging match with Roberto Mancini and when they scored a superb equaliser.
And if the chanting felt slightly artificial, well, Major League Soccer is trying to build something out of nothing with football in Los Angeles and sometimes they have to take shortcuts.
But when their most famous shortcut of all, David Beckham, flew east to New York after the match for the MLS All-Star Game against Manchester United tonight, I went a different way. I flew north to Vancouver and then drove down to Seattle.
Because the way the game is thriving here in the Pacific North West makes it the closest thing the MLS has to nirvana.
The roaring success of Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers is one of the main reasons why so much optimism surrounds the future of the game in North America.
The Sounders’ average home gate is more than 37,000. The Whitecaps, despite being bottom of the Western Conference in their first year in the league, pull in more than 20,000 a match. The Timbers average 18,000.
Some say the Sounders’ success is an anomaly, based on Seattle’s love of counter-culture. It is because the rest of North America is sceptical about soccer, the argument goes, Seattle has made a point of embracing it.
But as he sits in his office overlooking Vancouver harbour and the beautiful mountains beyond, Whitecaps chief executive, Paul Barber, once executive director at Spurs and commercial director at the FA, offered a series of more uplifting explanations.
He pointed out that before the ill-fated North American Soccer League, home to Pele, George Best and Rodney Marsh, crashed and burned, the Whitecaps, who won it in 1979, had established a fierce rivalry with the Timbers and the Sounders.
Now soccer has been reborn here, that rivalry has quickly been revived. One advertising agency, working on behalf of the Timbers to devise a slogan for their first year in the MLS, came up with ‘F*** Seattle’ as its final offering. It didn’t win the pitch. But you get the point.
“Soccer has a history here,” Barber said. “People would make the trip across the border and back regularly for matches against Portland and Seattle and now those same people are making the same journeys with their kids.
“It’s the closest soccer in America has to tradition. A lot of our supporters are going to the same bars before the game as they used to. There is a sense the soccer community has been reawakened.”
The Whitecaps story is the kind that suggests soccer really is putting down roots in North America now and the MLS is growing both in accomplishment and as a long-term viable commercial enterprise.
There are signs of that everywhere. When Amir Khan and Zab Judah worked out in a ring at the Mandalay Bay last week, the LA Lakers center, Andrew Bynum, stood watching. He was wearing a United shirt.
“We have five of North America’s biggest and most prestigious firms as team sponsors,” Barber said. “Bell Canada, BMO (Bank of Montreal), Budweiser, Kia and EA Sports and 30 other partners at different levels. In the space of 12 months, we’ve built a 15,000 season-ticket base. It was only 20,000 when I was at Spurs. In terms of the tactics, the ability of the players and the atmosphere in the stadiums we’ve made incredible progress in the MLS.
“The club is owned by local businessmen who wanted to put something back into the community. In October we move to a new $660m stadium, government funded because local politicians want to be proud of their sporting facilities.”
Some have suggested the clubs here have been used as a giant marketing opportunity by the host of Premier League teams, plus Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have criss-crossed the continent this summer but Barber disagreed.
He was adamant that even though the Sounders were crushed by United and the Whitecaps lost to Manchester City, there were myriad other factors that show how much progress the MLS had made.
For instance, more kids play football in Vancouver now than play ice hockey in the whole of British Columbia. The sport is seen as a cheaper, safer, more character-building option. In Seattle, the Sounders’ attendance dwarfs that of the baseball team, the Mariners, although it does help that the Mariners have been on a record-breaking losing run.
And yes, MLS teams only play 34 games a season. In major league baseball, each side plays 162 games a season. But still.
The big challenge for men like Barber is working with an salary cap that limits a club’s annual wage bill to $2.8m, a cautious move partly born from determination not to repeat the errors of the past.
“The challenge is to maintain the momentum of this league,” Barber said, “and then take it to the next level where American players want to stay in the MLS and some of the best European players want to come here earlier in their careers.
“But one thing is for sure: soccer in this country will not return to oblivion again. We are already past the point of no return.”
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