US and them

Football is a global game, and our Premier League is probably the most cosmopolitan in the world.  Fancy watching a live game at 3pm on a Saturday?  Well simply head to any decent city centre bar around the world and you will undoubtably find a game being shown live.  And the locals will be there in force, with a level of knowledge of our game that we would be envious of.

Across the pond, “soccer” is now starting to really grow as a spectator sport and the influence of the English Premier League is becoming more important as players such as Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jonathan Spector and Marcus Hahnemann continue to shine.

One of the most influential commentators on the American perspective of the Premier League is Christopher Harris, founder of the blog We recently caught up with “The Gaffer” as he is known, over a Bud Lite to get his views on the game over here from over there.

With the MLS expanding in 2011, at what point will it introduce a league pyramid-based structure like England?  And is there any news on a further franchise expansion?
It’s a tricky question because there technically is a league pyramid-based structure in America right now with Major League Soccer and then USSF Division 2 underneath that, and the PDL beneath that. But there is no promotion or relegation between each division. And there never will be. At least for as long as Major League Soccer keeps their current structure where the teams are centrally controlled by the league.

As for expansion, Vancouver and Portland will be added in 2011. Beyond that, it looks very likely that Montreal will be added in 2012 and there’s a good possibility that one more team will be added after that will be from South Florida.

Having holidayed in Florida on a number of occasions I am really surprised few bars go out of their way to make an event for us travelling Brits who want our slice of Premier action when we are abroad.  Have you every thought of starting a business to capture this market?
The restaurant business is a tough one to be in especially right now in the United States as we come out of a recession. My wife has worked in the restaurant business before, and it’s not as easy as it looks. But you’re right. There is a big market for it, if done well and if it’s in a good location. That said, I am considering partnering with a local sports bar to promote all of the World Cup games they’ll be showing. And to top it all off, I’m seriously thinking about having an official EPL Talk party for the World Cup clash between England and the United States.

In five words, sum up what the Premier League means to you?
Pure enjoyment on my telly.

Our media outlets are obsessed with footballers and what they get up to off the pitch.  Whilst few can ever be called role models, most of it is simply hype. What is the view of the US soccer supporters on the front page antics of the Premier League players?
For the most part, I think American soccer fans who follow the Premier League focus on the football more than the average Brit. But then again, the soap opera of what happens off the pitch in the Premier League can be quite addictive to follow and, in all seriousness, is sometimes more interesting that what happens on the pitch. The yanks tend to rightfully snub their noses at the tabloid press in the UK, but the stories that find their way into The Guardian are definitely required reading for most die-hard American soccer fans.

Which Premier teams are the most popular in the States and why?
Not surprisingly, it’s the big four. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are very popular. You’re more likely to see those strangers wearing those strips in America than shirts of Major League Soccer teams. In the past decade all four teams, except Arsenal, have conducted preseason tours around the States to promote their clubs to a US audience. And this has definitely helped sway many Americans to picking them as their favorite clubs. As for Arsenal, Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” was very influential in the States and helped create many Gunners fans in the States. Plus, their brand of attractive football has been a massive hit in winning over fans in America.

What is your favourite Premier League ground to visit?  And why?

Goodison Park

It’s a toss-up between Goodison Park and Craven Cottage, but Goodison Park has the slight edge. I’m a massive admirer of football architect Archibald Leitch, and the Grand Old Lady remains one of his finest examples where his work exists. And how can you not love a ground with a church in its corner, a Dixie Dean statue outside and the brilliant support of the Everton fans in the Gladwys Street End.

How often do you make it over to see a game in the UK?
Not as often as I would like. It’s been a combination of the weak dollar, higher air fare rates and trying to keep EPL Talk costs down that have prevented me from going to the UK as often as I would like. The last trip I took was in 2006 when I did a 10 day tour of England and went to five games which were Everton v Bolton, Blackburn v Spurs, Arsenal v Hamburg, Fulham v Reading and Man United v Chelsea.

How many games on an average weekend can you get on TV in the US from the Premier League?  Do many people head off on a Saturday morning first thing to the pub and don’t return until Sunday?
Believe it or not, but every single Premier League match is shown live in the States. A few of them are only available live on the Internet, but the vast majority of the games are shown live on television. As for the pubgoers, there’s definitely a very loyal contingent who will go to their local pub, especially in the big cities, to watch their favorite club play. Some poor souls living in California will drive down the freeway on a Saturday morning to watch the early Saturday kick-off, which begins at 4:45am Pacific Time.

As a big fan of football at the bottom end of the English ladder (Blue Square South with crowds of a few hundred), have you ever been to a game down that low?
I grew up in Wales and lived there until I was 14, so I was practically raised on the terraces of the Vetch Field in Swansea where I supported the Swans. The Blue Square didn’t exist in those days, but I sometimes went to non-league games in Wales to see clubs like Newtown AFC and Carmarthen Town play. Nowadays, I follow my local team, Miami FC, who play in the USSF Division 2 in the States.

As a long suffering West Ham fan I have grown very tired of our outspoken owners.  Is this something new to the US game or is my experience typical of football everywhere?

The ringmasters at the Circus

Good question. To be honest, I don’t follow American sports much other than MLS and the USSF Division 2, so I can’t say whether it happens in other leagues in America. But since Major League Soccer owns the clubs in America, it means that all communications are tightly controlled and you don’t get obnoxious owners like Gold and Sullivan mouthing off to the press.

Having been to a couple of games myself in the MLS, what clubs are most closely associated to the English model in terms of support?

FC Toronto fans

As for which MLS clubs are most closely associated to the English model in terms of support, I would say Toronto FC is a good example. They’ve got a brilliant fan base that even travels to away games (which is often unheard of in America because of the massive distances between clubs). Their home games definitely have a European atmosphere in the ground and they’ve had a fair number of British footballers playing for them that play a more British brand of football.

When you have been to games in England have you ever tried:-
Bovril, Steak and Kidney pie, Pie, Mash and Liquar, Jellied Eels, Donar Kebab etc?
When I went to see Swansea City play at home back in the late 70s and early 80s, the only food item on the menu was their infamous pasties, which were lovely. So I never got a chance to try the above delectables. I do fancy a steak and kidney pie now and again, though.

We are coming over to the States in August and have a free weekend.  Where should we head for a decent game?

Green with envy of the Sounders

If you have the time and don’t mind flying across the country, definitely go see a Seattle Sounders home match. The are without a doubt the greatest success story in the States in terms of supporters and have galvanized an entire city into making the team such an integral part of the fabric of Seattle.

Do you have close links with the MLS itself?  As an “outsider” they do not appear to be doing a good job at marketing the brand outside of the US?
I run a sister site at which you would think would lend itself to generating good close links with the league itself. But the level of their cooperation has been poor. In fact, we’re probably an annoyance to them because we’re one of the very few sites in America that provides a critical but honest view of the league. Where we see areas where they can improve, we point them out. When they do things well, we mention those too. However, you won’t believe the criticism we get from soccer fans in America who think we’re against MLS and that call us “Euro Snobs.” We support MLS, but we don’t believe in pulling the wool over people’s eyes and only writing positive things.

I agree with you that their level of marketing overseas is poor. But they’re facing an uphill battle in America alone where the Premier League often gets higher TV ratings than MLS. And where you can see more Premier League games on TV than you can from MLS.

Your site goes into considerable detail about the comings and goings in the Premier League.  Where do you get your information from?
It’s a combination of things. One, we have bloggers from around the world who are always looking out for the latest breaking news that they can report on EPL Talk. Two, we have established an excellent network with some of the top football journalists in England, and we interview many of them on a daily basis for the EPL Talk Podcast. And three, we’ve developed a really strong community of readers whereby they often send in tips to us about the latest news.

How many of your visitors do you get from the UK?
On an average month, we get 80,000 visits from the UK. I never expected the UK audience to be as significant as it is, but I believe we strike a chord with many of them who can’t find the type of coverage we provide elsewhere.

What do you make of the Portsmouth situation – five owners in a season and some incredible bad management must reflect badly on the Premier League as well?
Absolutely. It’s turned the Premier League’s Fit and Proper Person Test into a joke. With Pompey, just when you thought the story couldn’t get any worse, something else more dramatic would happen. And it just goes worse and worse as the season unfolded. The Premier League should hang its head in shame.

World Cup time.  Having read your blog post from October last year about what would happen if USA drew England, are you now seen as a bit of a prophet?  If so what will the score be when the teams meet in South Africa?
Not a prophet, just a dreamer. Having lived in America for 26 years, I wrote last October about what my dream World Cup group would be and I was very fortunate that England and the United States were picked to play in the same group. As for the scoreline for that match, it’s difficult to say right now because there’s still so much time between now and the June 12th match and injuries can happen at any time. But, right now, if I was to predict a scoreline, I think England will win it 1-0 with a late goal in a very close match.

World Cup fever hasn’t kicked in yet in England – perhaps due to the distances involved this time round and the small number of travelling fans when compared to the last few tournaments.  What are you expecting from the USA?
ESPN has spent more money on this summer’s World Cup than they have on any sporting event they’ve ever done in the history of the network. They’re banking on the tournament being massive, and with the clout that they have, I really believe this can finally be the summer where soccer breaks into mainstream America. But, at the same time, Americans are very patriotic, so if the US team gets knocked out of the tournament in the early stages, it’s going to be a devastating blow to soccer in America as well as the TV ratings.

As far as the US soccer fans go, the last I heard was that America was leading the race for the most number of World Cup tickets ordered. So expect to see a lot of Americans in the stands particularly for the US matches.

How far do you think the US team could go?  And what players should we be watching out for?
The US team has several very talented players but their biggest challenges are that they’re coached by an American who has little experience on the world’s stage and the team plays like Jekyll and Hyde. You never know what you’re going to get. Although I hope I’m wrong, I don’t see the US making it out of their opening group. Algeria and Slovenia will be no pushovers.

Players to watch out for, other than Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, are Jay DeMerit who is a brilliant defender for the United States (and who still plays for Watford). Edson Buddle is another one to watch out for, if he makes the squad. The kid is playing some brilliant football and scoring goals galore right now for LA Galaxy.

Many thanks to “The Gaffer” for his thoughts on the Premier League.  We are a big fan of EPL Talk and their incisive views on the English game.  We thoroughly recommend bookmarking them along with TBIR to get a different view on what is going on in England.

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