When Stuart met Daryl but not in a cafe….

So today is the day that two old enemies lock horns again.  Some say they have been waiting sixty years for the chance to get even after events in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, although the most recent meetings do point to advantage England.

The beautiful game is still a big talking point in the US and there are one or two excellent websites where you can follow the ins and outs of the good.

What better way to celebrate the game this evening than a quick chat with one of the experts in the US – Daryl Grove from The Offside.

Back in 2008 when McClown had taken the English national team back 10 years through the disasterous Euro2008 qualifying tournament and we had a summer of watching Spain rule the continent I was approached by a US podcast to be “their man on the ground” in Austria and Switzerland.  In the course of the tournament I provided The Offside with  a number of updates on the games, the stadiums, the fans and of course the beer (you can hear one if you are desperate or bored here).

I’ve always made it a regular read and over the past four years they have significantly expanded the blog to cover a number of specific countries including 14 in Europe.  However, their core business is still the US, and with the World Cup looming we thought we would turn the tables on them so we sat down with ex-Pat Daryl Oliver for a chat.

When did The Offside blog start?
The Offside launched in August 2006, but World Cup Blog (www.worldcupblog.org) had been around for nearly a year before that. It actually began in 2002 as a blog about the Japan/South Korea World Cup, but was ramped up massively for the 2006 tournament in Germany,  with a front page written by Bob Kellett and 32 team blogs (one for every team at World Cup 2006) written by fans. It was a huge success with something like 15 million pageviews (and there was me thinking The Ball is Round was big!) during the tournament, and so the people at bootsnall.com (who own the site) decided to launch a club version.

What were its original aims?
I wasn’t involved from the start. I joined as a team blogger for the 2006 World Cup (covering the US national team) and then became managing editor of both The Offside and World Cup Blog when Bob moved on in late 2007. But the basic aims seemed to be to get as many club teams from around the world as possible represented with an Offside team blog. It also seems that the aim from the beginning was to foster a friendly community atmosphere between all bloggers and in all comments sections, rather than the biased and sometimes nasty arguments between rival football fans. So the idea seemed to be to bring football fans together rather than set them against each other.

You went to the US in 2005, who did you support before that?
Wolverhampton Wanderers. Still do.  It was a little tougher to see Wolves games in the US while they were in down the Championship, but the Premier League is massive here. On any given weekend you can actually see more Prem games on TV in the US than you can back home.

What were the immediate differences between the UK and the US game?
I arrived in the US almost completely ignorant of MLS, but pretty quickly became fascinated. For better or worse it’s a completely unique set up, with the single entity business model, trades and drafts rather than transfers, the salary cap. All those differences make it tough to get to grips with a first, but that complexity and uniqueness make it a really interesting league to follow, especially as the league is always growing and changing. It’s a lot less static than the Premier League. In terms of general football culture, the sport’s obviously not as mainstream as it is in the UK. You’d think that would be frustrating, but I’ve come to love it. When you meet someone who’s a football fan here, they’re very into it and usually very knowledgeable and take it very seriously. So I almost prefer that small but concentrated fan culture that exists here, as opposed to the UK where it’s more diluted because every man and his dog watches football and thinks they know all there is to know.

What is the general standard of the game?
I think the standard of MLS is better than most people in the UK and elsewhere realize, but maybe not as good as the diehard MLS fans would like to believe. There are some very talented players in MLS, guys like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Dwayne de Rosario, but at the same time the salary cap means the level of talent on most squads is a little unbalanced. So you get David Beckham in the same team as someone like Alan Gordon, who seems like a great guy, but he’s obviously not in Beckham’s class as a player.

What do you make of the Beckham impact on the game out there?
It definitely made the rest of the world more aware of Major League Soccer’s existence, but I think the idea that having this one really famous player in the league was going to magically convert Americans who didn’t care about soccer into huge fans of the sport was insane. To be fair, that wasn’t MLS’s stated ambition, but that somehow became the perception.

What I hoped at the time was that Beckham’s arrival would open the floodgates and that the likes of Thierry Henry and Ronaldo would follow soon after. Obviously that hasn’t happened yet.  I also get the feeling that the league itself accommodated Beckham a little too much, and treated him like a VIP guest rather than a player in the league. Hopefully they’ve learned from that though and will be better equipped to deal with future big name players.

The big thing for me is that Beckham was never going to change things overnight. He’s not the messiah, he’s a right midfielder. But his presence does represent progress, and that’s what MLS is all about for me.

Fan culture – is there such a thing at soccer games?
Of course, and to be blunt I think fans over here would be insulted that you even asked that question! The atmosphere at many games is exactly what you’d expect from a football crowd. Also, I may be biased, but I really love the fan culture that exists on the internet here. Whereas back home most a lot of the online discussion seems to be Man Utd and Liverpool fans slagging each other off,  over here there’s a lot of well informed discussion and debate about the future of MLS and what sort of directions the league should be taking.

I think there’s a massive misconception overseas that somehow MLS fans aren’t proper football fans. They absolutely are. The only major difference between MLS fans and football fans in other countries is that MLS fans are in the minority here. I’d argue that makes them more committed in many ways.

What team(s) have the best following?
I’m not sure about the numbers and how each team ranks, but three of the recent expansion teams have been excellent crowds. Seattle Sounders had around 36,000 for the season opener, Toronto FC regularly sell out their 20,000 seat stadium, and 2010 expansion team Philadelphia Union apparently had 34,000 or so fans for their first ever home game.

What is your opinion of the US national team?
It’s hard to be objective, because I’ve become a fan of the team. Obviously I’m an England fan first, but the USA team now comes a very close second for me. Which feels weird, but in a good way.

I’d say the team is much much better than it gets credit for, but maybe not as good as the more confident USA fans would like to believe. I think of it like this: When USA qualified for the 1990 World Cup, it was a shock. Yet they haven’t missed a World Cup since and now the USA expects to qualify for every single tournament. At the Confed Cup last summer they beat Spain convincingly and ran Brazil incredibly close in the final. That’s progress. So it’s maybe too early to talk about winning World Cups, but not too early to talk about the USA as an established international football team.

Have they deserved their success or is the CONCAF a weak confederation?
Yes and yes. CONCACAF is definitely weak, and so USA and Mexico are more or less guaranteed World Cup qualification. It’s almost too easy.  On the other hand there was a time when the USA couldn’t achieve World Cup qualification from CONCACAF. Their elevation to perennial CONCACAF qualifiers wasn’t handed to them, it’s a result of the progress that’s been made in US Soccer in the last 20 years.

The only CONCACAF mountain left for the US team to conquer is to go and beat Mexico in the Azetca. Beyond that you could argue the team would benefit from playing in a different confederation. Personally I’m keen on the CONMEBOL and CONCACAF merging into one confederation, but that’s obviously not going to happen any time soon.

Which players have stood out for you in qualifiying?
CONCACAF qualifying gets serious in the Fourth Round, known as the Hexagonal. It’s basically the six remaining teams, who then play home and away. Top three qualify, fourth place gets a playoff vs a CONMEBOL team. The USA’s first game of this round was the big one against Mexico, and coach’s son Michael Bradley scored twice in a 2-0 win. Can’t ask much more than that from a midfielder in his early 20s.

Jozy Altidore came up big too. The US were 2-0 down away to El Salvador with fifteen minutes to go last March, and Altidore scored to start a comeback that ended with Frankie Hejduk rescuing a draw for the US. Altidore followed that up with a hat-trick vs Trinidad & Tobago a few days later and also the winner at home to El Salvador in September.

What sort of test will the England game be?
Huge. This is the game that all the US fans are talking about. Not just because England are the big team in Group C, but also because US soccer fans are all very very familiar with the English Premier League and the England national team. So it’s a good yardstick for US fans to measure their team against a team they’re already familiar with. There’s also a lot of historical stuff mixed in there, with certain friends of mine making multiple references to the American Revolutionary War, plus the time the US beat England at the 1950 World Cup.

England obviously have the edge in terms of quality and big game experience, but the USA will definitely give them a tough game. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the USA battle out a well-earned draw, especially with it being the first game of the tournament for both teams.

Does it help having a few premier league players in the squad such as Friedel, Spector and of course Howard? (Friedel retired from international football a while ago, so he won’t be in the squad. )
It might help that certain players have already played against England’s players in the league. Guys like Dempsey, Howard and Spector play against England internationals all the time, so there’s no chance of them being star struck.

How many fans do you think will travel to SA?
I have no idea about exact numbers, but apparently a big chunk of the ticket sales have been going to USA fans. The USA will be definitely be well supported.

What coverage will the Offside be offering of the tournament?
Over on www.worldcupblog.org we’ll have a World Cup dedicated front page blog, constantly updated by myself and a few other staff writers. We’ll also have 32 team blogs being updated by fans from around the world. I’ve noticed a lot of the mainstream media sites attempting to do something similar, but so far I think we’re the only site that’s been able to do it properly, with excellent blogs about all the big teams but also the lesser known teams like Algeria and New Zealand.

Many thanks to Daryl for taking time out to speak to us.  We suggest you all follow TheOffside on Twitter by clicking here.

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