Let them hate so long as they fear


It all started with Peter Withe.  The bearded, sweat-band wearing centre forward who went on to score the winner in the 1982 European Cup Final for Aston Villa scored the Timbers first ever goal against Seattle Sounders in Portland Timber’s 2-1 victory back in 1975.  Withe was a hit with the Portland fans who referred to him as the “Wizard of Nod”.  A year later when the sides met again, Seattle could boast the legendary skills of Harry Redknapp and Geoff Hurst up top.  Today, the English contingent consists solely of Liam Ridgewell, former West Ham trainee and now campaign of the Timbers.

Forty three years later and the two sides were meeting for the 100th competitive time on a beautiful sunny day in mid-May (there’s a couple of great videos commemorating the occasion here and here from both sides of the state line).  The intense rivalry between the two sides has never let up and noise coming from both sides had been at an intense level since an hour before the game started.  Due to the huge distances in the US, there’s few games where supporters travel in numbers.  Even in New York where the two clubs are less than 20 miles (although technically in different states), the rivalry is muted to say the least.  However, on the Pacific North-West Coast, 175 miles is nothing and so the games have always been played out in front of both sets of fans.  Add in Vancouver Whitecaps and you have a hot-bed of football.  The Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 by the fans of the three clubs and awarded annually to the club with the best record during the season against each other, with the current holders being Portland after three wins and a draw from the six games they played.

I’ve been to some pretty insipid MLS games before, where atmosphere was non-existent.  The best I had come across was a New York Red Bulls versus DC United game a few years ago, although just a few weeks later when I returned to Harrison, New Jersey for the RB game against KC Sporting there was no more than a thousand in the stadium (due to the Yankees being at home some 20 miles away apparently).  So I was looking forward to sampling some European-style atmosphere.

Distance makes rivalries hard in the US.  There’s no love lost between the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball, nor between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL but in reality it is a rivalry played out in and by the media, as few hardcore away fans make the respective trips.  And for those that do, they seem to be able to sit among the home fans albeit with some gentle ribbing.

For The Timber Army and the Emerald City Army, the performance off the pitch of the fans is almost as important as the result on it.  Both sets of fans were in fine voice as the kick-off approached, although they both seemed keen to ‘build a bonfire’ and put each other on the top.  Poor old Vancouver were stuck in the middle of both versions, a rare thing that both sets of fans could agree on!

Providence Park is still a work-in progress with construction underway to make it an even more atmospheric stadium than it is today.  The curve behind the goal, home to the Timbers Army, is being extended around to mean 3/4 of the ground will be covered, just leaving the final end, a very low terrace area, currently with ‘bleacher’-like seats.

At the appointed kick-off time (1pm) there as no sign of any players.  I’m used to this now with US Sports but still have no idea why.  At 1:03pm the players emerged (from very separate tunnels), sang the national anthem, the crowd waved their scarves and finally the game kicked off at 1:09pm.  The Timber Army, led by a couple of Capo’s at the front of the stand kept the beat up during the opening period as the sun beat down on them.  Above the entrance to the tunnel and below the Timber Army was a flag in the colours of the state of Oregon with the latin phrase Oderint Dum Metuant – “let them hate so long as they fear”.  Who could hate such a passionate display of support? OK – apart from the Sounders fans who were doing a pretty impressive job themselves of making themselves heard.

 

The first half was a tense affair.  Portland looked to stretch the play and tried to get their two wide men behind the Seattle defence, whilst the Sounders seemed happy to play on the break.  Timber’s star man, Argentine Diego Valeri was singled out for some “special” treatment from the away side before he had the best chance of the game when he pulled the ball wide after a swift break.  At the other end Clint Dempsey fluffed his lined in front of goal after Nouhou Tolo’s shot had flashed across the area.

Half-time and all square.

Seattle started the second period the brighter of the two sides and Tolo was played in within the first minute but his shot was easily saved by Timbers keeper Attinella.  At the other end Valeri looked odds-on to score before a last-gasp intervention from Marshall ten yards out.  Andy Polo, who I know is Peruvian from my Panini collection (the most un-Peruvian name you ever come across) and he came close to scoring, curling an effort from just inside the box but it was beaten away from Stefan Frei in the Sounders goal.

Once again the howls of disapproval were reserved for another foul on Valeri as he broke at speed and was wrestled to the floor by Norwegian Magnus Wolff-Eikrem, who got a yellow card for his impudence.  By this stage the heat seemed to have drained the effort and energy out of both sides, seemingly happy to settle for a draw.  With ten minutes to go Swede Samuel Armenteros was played in and found himself clear on goal. He took one stride into the area but then fell, slightly theatrically, under a challenge. Looked a clear penalty to me but the referee was having none of it, although didn’t feel the tumble warranted a card for simulation.

And then finally we had a goal. Armenteros robbed a Seattle defender in midfield and played a neat ball behind the centre-back for Blanco to run onto and he slide the ball past Frei and into the net.  Unsurprisingly the reaction from the home fans was deafening, although the Seattle fans certainly weren’t silent. A chorus of a Portland remix of Anarchy in the UK broke out with the Timber Army bouncing around the stand as the game went into six minutes of injury time.

Ninety-five minutes gone and the referee was alerted to something that had happened in the build-up to a Seattle attack with Leerdam laying prostrate on the floor.  He ran over to the monitor behind the goal line, ran back to the middle of the pitch and gave a drop-ball.  Not quite sure what that was all about.  And then it was all over.  A hard-fought victory for the home and the party would go on into the afternoon in the sunshine.  The Sounders went over to thank their fans for playing their part but it was the green flares that belched out into the air from the Timbers fans to celebrate their victory and bragging rights until the two sides met again next month.

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Have the Cosmos reached the limit of their universe?


For those who love a random fact, if each of the five boroughs of New York City were a separate city, Brooklyn would rank as the third-most populous city in the whole of the United States, behind Los Angeles and Chicago, with over 2.6 million people within its borders.  The second biggest borough is Queens.  It was also the birth place of the credit card, the first US roller coaster and Brooklyn Beer.  If you want (and can) live in New York then Brooklyn isn’t a bad spot, as my good friend Luge Pravda can testify.

22806797358_53dda10aea_kAnd testify he did as we headed back from a borefest at the MetLife Stadium where we had witnessed the LA Rams beat the New York Jets by 9 points to 6.  It wasn’t proper football as the conversation went, highlighting our very British view about the game to try and get some audience participation on the train ride.  Alas, everyone seemed to be in a degenerative state of boredom thanks to the last 3 hours of NFL.  Whilst that may have been their weekend sporting highlight, we still had the prospect of watching the cumulation of the North American Soccer League season as the New York Cosmos faced Indy Eleven in very unfamiliar surroundings.

At the start of the season all of the teams in the NASL had to submit venues for all potential dates including the play-offs.  Unfortunately, Hofstra University, the normal home of the Cosmos,  told them nearly a year ago that the stadium couldn’t be used in the second weekend in November.  The club could have rented another suitable venue but it would have been on the off-chance of making the final.  They couldn’t “wing it”.  They had to submit firm details of a venue even though they had no idea whether they would need it.

The club looked at a host of venues, including MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, which is rumoured to be the Cosmos’ next permanent home.  However, they would have to cover up the Baseball diamond at a significant cost, so once again that venue was dismissed.  There’s no news as to whether the club actually approached either the RedBulls to hire the RedBull Arena or New York City, although the costs of hiring the Yankee Stadium would have been prohibitive, as too would have been the Met Life, albeit being the spiritual home of the club.

There was a last-ditch attempt to negotiate the use of Hofstra University again but even with the potential of midweek dates agreed between the play-off teams, the talks came to nothing and the only option the club had was Belson Stadium, a three sided university soccer field, built on top of a car park, which could only hold 2,600 fans, 30% less than the Cosmos’ average home attendance this season.  Hardly the season finale they had planned.

These factors all added up meaning that the venue was really unsuitable for the game, unwanted by the NASL and deeply unpopular with the fans of both teams.  Oh, and a pain in the arse to get to, with no public transport in the vicinity, meaning everyone, which in our case, I, had to drive there.

25349765629_f11437307b_kFor those who have read The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half, you will be very familiar with the Cosmos story in the chapter “Twice in a Lifetime” – if not then I would thoroughly recommend buying it now otherwise the next bit won’t make any sense at all.  It is quite scandalous how their heritage counted for nothing when the MLS were considering a second franchise in New York, and it appears that there is very little chance of them getting an opportunity to join the elite, any time soon.  In February 2014, MLS commissioner Don Garber named three other markets as candidates for the final expansion team that would get the league’s stated 24-team target by 2020,, which did not include New York and on April 25, 2014, he told Associated Press’s sports editors that there would not be a third MLS team in New York, effectively ending any hope on the Cosmos gaining a place back at the top table, on merit rather than on politics, which essentially made the whole NASL Championship a little bit of an anti-climax.  The Cosmos could win the league and the play-offs for the next decade and still not get a look in.

Since my last visit in 2014 the Cosmos had been almost unstoppable. They finished the 2015 spring season unbeaten, finishing in first place, although the second half of the season saw them lose four times and finish in third place.  However, they went on to win the Soccer Bowl, beating Ottawa Fury in from of a NASL record crowd of 10,166 at Hofstra.  The game also marked the final career appearance of Spanish legend Raúl, who had chosen to age gracefully in New York, resisting the offers from the MLS to play with the Cosmos.  They also reached the fifth round of the US Open cup in June 2015, losing to New York Red Bulls over in New Jersey, although in the previous round they did beat New York City 4-3 on penalties in front of 11,940, a record attendance at the James M. Shuart Stadium, a very bitter sweet moment considering the situation with the New York expansion franchise.

This season has seen them go from strength to strength.  Whilst the playing budget was cut, although most of that was down to the retirement of Raúl, they could still boast a squad of 12 different nationals.  They finished the first half of the season in 2nd place behind Indy Eleven, although the two teams finished on the same number of points, the same number of goals scored and goals conceded, with the team from Indianapolis awarded the title based on their 2-1 victory over the Cosmos early in the season. However, in the fall season the Cosmos were dominant from game one, finishing 10 points clear of Indy Eleven in top spot.

The play-offs went according to plan, with both the Cosmos and Indy Eleven winning with ease, interestingly in the case of New York in front of over 5,000 fans at Hofstra, setting up the fourth meeting between the two sides of the season.  As we took our seats we could see and hear the two sets of fans at either end of the stadium trying to generate an atmosphere, which was tough considering the capacity for the 3-sided ground was just over 2,000.  To our right were the Cosmos fans, made up of the Borough Boys, La Banda del Cosmos and The Cross Island Crew, whilst at the far end the travelling Indy Eleven fans made the noise.  Even stevens on and off the pitch it seemed.

New York Cosmos 0 Indy Eleven 0 (4-2 on pens) – Belson Stadium, Queens – Sunday 13th November 2016
It’s fair to say this wasn’t a classic.  It seemed relatively obvious from early in the game that there was little between the two sides and the game would be decided by a moment of magic or madness.  Alas, the game lacked examples of either and was finally decided by some poor penalty kicks by the visitors to give the Cosmos their third NASL Championship in the past four seasons.

During the two hours of football there were only five shots on goal, although the away side came the closest to scoring in the ninety minutes when Nemanja Vuković broke down the left and his cross was met by the impressive Don Smart on the half-volley, which hit the bar and bounced to safety. Despite Cosmos having the most valuable player in the league in the form of Juan Arango, denoted by his Golden Ball award at half time, they created very little in the game.

Full-time merged into extra-time with no real delineation between the stages of the game.  By the time we got to half-time in extra-time it was blatantly obvious the game would be going to penalties.  We did have some late drama when Arrieta crossed from the left to Diosa in the centre of the penalty area. His first touch escaped him, but Diosa stayed with the play, turned and hit a right-footed shot that just skipped wide of the near post.  The final whistle put us out of our misery.

Indy went first in the shootout and Nicki Paterson, a Scot who 16 games with Clyde no less, beat the Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer with a shot inside the far post. Jairo Arrieta stepped up for the Cosmos and smacked his shot off the far post and in. The majority of the crowd gave a heavy breath out that was soon replaced by cheers as Eamon Zayed’s spot kick hit both posts and someone stayed out.  Another Scot, former Elgin City star Adam Moffat coolly slotted the ball straight down the middle and the pressure was on Indy Eleven.

In a somewhat surprising decision, veteran keeper Jon Busch stepped up but blazed the ball high and wide, almost handing the title on a plate (or in this instance a bowl), to the Cosmos.  It was left to Ryan Ritcher to take the decisive penalty for the home side, making the final score 4-2.  Cue the wild celebrations that included a flare or two being set off in the Cosmos fans, leading to panic among the Campus Police (really) who had never had to deal with such an event.

On my last trip to see the Cosmos I said that I couldn’t see what the future holds for them, and two years down the road I still don’t understand where they can go next.  They need to test themselves against better opposition each week, they need their own stadium so they can attract more commercial revenues and of course fans.  Their “once in a lifetime” opportunity seems to have been and gone, so now they are most definitely a very big fish in a relatively small pond.

Two weeks after the game came the news that the NASL may be no more and with it would go any opportunity for the Cosmos to carry on in their current form.  This story may not end here and it is unlikely when it does to be a happy one.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Disruptive Influencers


Back in 1997 DC United won the second ever MLS Cup, beating Colorado Rapids on home turf. Avid fan and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was so compelled by DC United retaining their title that he sat down and and mused as to whether this could be the start of something beautiful for his side and US Soccer in general. Looking across the pond at the dominance of Manchester United plus the emergence of the Galacticos in Madrid he wondered if a new force could emerge to take world football by storm. His theory on disruption theory has been called “one of the sexiest theories ever written” by The Lady magazine, high praise indeed and has since been adapted for wider economic models, but it should always be remembered that it’s humble beginnings were in the beautiful game. So what’s all the fuss about?

Christensen’s theory is based around the principle that innovators with cheap solutions to a vexing market problem can unseat larger, more established rivals. So in the case of DC United’s squad, assembled at a fraction of the cost of United’s or Real’s, could their domestic dominance and momentum carry them across the pond and further in the global game. His theory was hailed as the answer to everything from making health care more efficient to reducing poverty by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and Elton Welsby, and was the talk of the dressing and boardrooms from Rio to Rome.

Christensen wrote that disruptive innovations, such as Social Media websites, Rainbow looms and snoods tend to be produced by outsiders from their industry. The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruption when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition). So when FC United won their first MLS Cup back in 1996, nobody outside of North America took them seriously – it was after all a small domestic league of ageing imports and unproven domestic talent. But back to back wins, and two more final appearances in the next two seasons allowed them to pursue that disruption and potentially start eat the global giants breakfast.

Alas, DC United’s dominance didn’t last as long as Facebook although it did outlive the crazes of plastic bracelets made by our kids and neck scarves worn by hardy professional footballers. Christensen’s theory was debunked by some who pointed to Apple’s continued dominance in the device market, or Amazon’s in terms of online shopping. We’ve seen pretenders to the footballing global dominance throne very occasionally come forward but money talks in today’s game. There is no coincidence that the clubs with the deepest pockets in England, France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Italy walk away with the honours year after year. Despite salary caps, centralised contracts and no meritocracy structure, the US domestic game is no different today. The LA Galaxy have won three of the last four titles whilst the New York Red Bulls, with the backing of the global energy drink company, lead the way this season.

Christensen’s five minutes of fame may still resonate with some economic thinkers but in terms of the world of football it’s the same old story – money talks.

The greatest sporting rivalry?


Sitting in a bar in lower Manhattan last year my good friend Luge Pravda and I discussed what the greatest sporting rivalry was in the world.  The conversation had started after a drunk Mexican guy who had been sitting next to us suggested that the Real Madrid v Barca game on the TV was for “p@ssies” and that the atmosphere was better “in my pants” (his, not mine I hasten to add).  I asked him what he thought was the biggest and he suggested the Yankees v Red Sox in baseball.  Whilst I am not a baseball aficionado, I have been to enough games to understand some of the nuances of the game as well as being able to observe close up the wonderful character that is the faux drunk American man and his random screams of excitement.  Back in the day (well, when the Yankee Stadium was only home to baseball rather than the bizarre home of a major football side playing games at an odd angle) I actually went to a Yankees v Red Sox game with Boston running out 9-0 winners.  I certainly couldn’t remember any shenanigans on a scale of West Ham v Millwall or Celtic v Rangers apart from the odd random shouts from fans of “Red Cocks Suck”, “No.  Wankees suck” and so on..

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As luck would have it I would be back in New York for a grand total of 26 hours for work just when the latest chapter of baseball’s greatest rivalry would be played at Yankee Stadium.  Tickets for virtually every US sporting event aren’t hard to get these days.  Despite this ticking all the boxes of a potential sell-out, over 4,000 tickets (8% of the capacity) were on sale on StubHub alone.

20413212851_38daf4e2bf_kSo here is where I simply do not understand Baseball (and a number of other American sports) fans.  I arrived at the stadium at 7.15, ten minutes after the “start time” thanks to almost SouthEastern train-esque punctuality of the Metro North Line.  There were thousands upon thousands of people outside the stadium.  Whilst there were long queues to get into the stadium, there were also people still drinking in the bars and eating in the restaurants.  I’m sure some will not have had tickets, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to get into watch the game.

With no time for a beer outside, we headed up to the 4th tier where our seats were.  Queues for every concession stand were massive.  Was anyone actually watching the game?  We struggled in vain to find somewhere selling a beer that wasn’t Bud, Coors or Miller.  The “Craft Beer” concession stand was selling Stella and Heineken, meaning for the sake of actually getting to watch some of the action, we went with New Castle Ale (aka Newcastle Brown Ale).  Only two each mind, and no more after the 7th innings just in case you enjoy yourself too much.  You can of course gorge yourself silly on cholesterol-loaded, heart-attack inducing fried food, served in massive buckets right up until the end of the game.

20218979630_454ac17a48_kWe got to our seats with the score at 1-0 after three innings.  It wasn’t a thriller but crowd watching from our seats in the Gods was.  I would hazard a guess that the average time a fan actually sat in his seat was less than 10 minutes judging by the constant coming and going.  To keep them amused we had “kiss cam”, “hug cam”, “smile cam”, “strange not sure what it was supposed to be cam” and “YMCA cam”.  One young lady in the front of the tier behind got a bit too excited at the “Y” action that she almost lost her top in Barbara Windsor style.

The location was perfect for a night of sport though, with the sun setting behind us and the planes leaving Laguardia passing overhead more than making up for the stalemate being played out in front of us.  Luge had been here a few weeks previous (see here) to watch New York City play and the pitch markings were still visible.  With the Yankees being as close to a national treasure as you can get, it is still amazing that “soccer” is allowed to be played here.

In the fifth innings we had some excitement as the Red Sox scored two runs.  Pockets of fans stood up and cheered without reprisal.  Had that have been Messi scoring in the Bernabau or Rooney at Anfield I would dare to suggest their celebrations would have been cut very short.  But the Yankees came back in the next innings, scoring three of their own.  We had a game on, especially when the Red Sox scored again at the top of the 7th (see I do know some of the jargon) to make it 4-3.  However, with the big hand approaching 30 it was time for me to leave for my trip back up to the suburbs.  We’d seen the best of the play, had a couple of English beers, a good chat and nearly seen a girl embarrass herself.  What more could you want for $33?

Of course it turned out to be one of those memorable victories, with the Yankees scoring 9 (NINE!) runs in the time it took us to walk from our seats to the train station, giving them a 13-3 victory and the bragging rights for, let me see, 24 hours until the teams met again (Red Sox gained some revenge with a 2-1 win).

I’m not sure this would rank in my top 20 (50?) rivalries that I had seen in the sporting flesh.  Whilst the opposing fans may dislike each other, it was very rare in US sport for it to ever boil over into violence.  Rivalry is perhaps too strong a word for it.  Mild irritation possibly.  It’s still a great way to spend an evening though.

Postscript:

That comment about US sport rarely boiling over into violence?  Well 10 days later, it did.

Frank who? Pirlo consigns Lampard to the bargain bin on his debut


Our Englishman in New York, Luge Pravda,  breaks his vow never to set foot in Yankee Stadium, to see the Pirlo show.

Yesterday, Sunday, just as I was wondering how I would get over the void left by the Tour de France finishing my laptop beeped with the familiar sound of a message in my Gmail chat. It was good friend and fellow sports nut Andy, asking me if I fancied seeing NYCFC at Yankee Stadium vs. Orlando City? Furthermore, we would be in the “Ultra’s” section! Moreover, it was a free ticket. I quickly checked the MTA for travel time. I would have to leave before the end of the last TdF stage. Andy informed me of a recent invention called “DVR” and what with the stage being largely processional for the Maillot jaune I was very soon on the subway heading to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Changing for the 4 train at Union Square I was instantly greeted by a sea of sky blue on the platform. 75% of the passengers getting on had on club colours of some sort.

Talking of sky blue, it is probably worth reiterating for newer readers of my extremely occasional pieces for this hallowed blog that I am a lifelong Utd fan, that being Manchester United of course. Since their inception I had vociferously told anyone asking about NYCFC that I could never in a million years endorse a City outfit. That all went up in a puff of smoke when I considered that a) Andy was going b) Pirlo was going to make his debut and c) the ticket was free. I should also add d) courtesy of a friend who tweeted me, somewhat sarcastically:

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Turns out the “Ultra’s” section is simply the “Supporters” section: those most vocal and loyal fans occupying the bleachers (can they be loyal in their inaugural season?) I have to say it was hugely impressive to see such a turn out and so many fans of a new club so into it. The cynic in me may wish to ask if the fandom and apparent passion is all somehow manufactured, but frankly, the more people get into the beautiful game here in the US, the better in my opinion. And New York was crying out for a team that plays in, er, New York (here’s looking at you New York Red Bulls, now home to not one but two Wright-Phillips, in Harrison, New Jersey).

3As for the match? Well, the first half was edged by Orlando until David Villa scored a good goal right on half time. When asked about the quality of the sides, Andy confidently informed me that both teams had a few stars surrounded by “guys like me”. Which means Andy sees himself as English League One quality! And on topic one of the stars on show, Kaka, had a right old barney at least 4 of his teams mates, finger wager and remonstrating with them; presumably for never having won a World Cup.

The match ended 5-3 to the home team, and in typical LP style, I was not actually looking in the right direction for about 3 of those goals. But I was most definitely concentrating in the 56th minute. Pirlo time:

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And boy the place went bonkers. As in full on popcorn showering bonkers. And boy did Pirlo look good out there. As one of Andy’s friends succinctly put it: “every time Pirlo passes the ball it is the best pass in the history of MLS”! I think my tweet sums it up:

All-in-all a very enjoyable experience. Mostly I have to admit for the Pirlo show. But also to see a large crowd so into it, even trying to sing chants that don’t along the standard US “let’s go____ <insert team name>”whilst flinging beer and popcorn everywhere. There were even some flares being set off outside after the match. Ultra’s indeed. Even if this is a City franchise, my wish to see soccer the biggest sport in the USA, outweighs my own personal club allegiance. And quite why the Glazers don’t do something similar I will never know.

Lastly, very different circumstances to the last time I saw Orlando play, last year up in Rochester, in the league below the MLS. Which you can read all about here.

US and them


We are very keen on eulogising about the magic of the FA Cup in this country and quite rightly so.  It is the oldest football competition in the world, full of nostalgia and goosebump-inducing moments.  Every fan of every club will have a story, a moment in history that they will never forget.  Some of us have experienced the elation at seeing our team win the trophy, such as I did as a ten-year old when perhaps the last ever second tier side, West Ham United, won the trophy. Some have had the despair at losing in a final, perhaps none so cruel as on penalties (stand up again West Ham fans for the last final to be settled in this way back in 2006). Today, with football dominated by money at the top-level of the game, many fans of Premier League clubs may not care about the FA Cup anymore. The Football Association themselves showed their true colours by selling naming rights and moving the semi-finals to Wembley Stadium, scheduling kick-off times when fans can’t use public transport to get home.

Many fans don’t know that the tournament actually starts before the Premier League kicks off in August.  Why would hundreds of thousands of fans want to know that?  After all, they are only interested in when their team plays – which for the most part is the Third Round on the first weekend of January.  By then, on average, there will be one “plucky” Non-League side left in the competition.  This season 736 teams entered the cup, with the first game being played on Friday 15th August when Hebburn Town kicked off against West Allotment Celtic.  The 182 winners in the Extra Preliminary Round back in August all received £1,500, whilst when Arsenal scooped the trophy in May they walked away with a cumulative sum of £3,737,500 which is not quite a drop in the ocean to them but enough to keep Jack Wilshere in tabs for a few more weeks.

Our national treasure is slowly becoming blighted by the same disease that has tainted the top-level of football in this country – money. Whilst the winners of the tournament pick up a cheque for £1.8million for lifting the trophy, Emirates will sponsor the tournament from next season for £10m.  Does the world’s oldest football challenge cup really need a sponsor?  As with most of football, if it has public recognition, then it can be sold.  FA Cup semi-finals are now played at the convenience of the global TV audience rather than so fans of the teams involved can actually easily get to and home again.

As luck, or more precise, work would have it, I was back in New York this week.  Of course I did my research into what sporting events I could attend post work.  I seemed to have chosen a good week – The Mets and Yankees were both at home, but more importantly it was the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup, the American equivalent of our FA Cup.

Now in its 102nd year, it is an older competition that the Super Bowl and the NBA Championship Play-Offs.  Whilst early winners such as Bethlehem Steel and St Luis Simkins-Ford are no longer around, it was the first tournament that united “soccer” in the country.  Last seasons winners, Seattle Sounders pocketed just $250,000 for winning the trophy, but they had already kissed goodbye to this year’s challenge, losing 3-1 at home to bitter rivals Portland Timber, finishing the game with just seven men.  Even better was the sending off of Clint Dempsey who then proceeded to snatch the referees notebook and rip out the page featuring his misdemeanour.

I had the choice of two games.  Tuesday had the New York RedBulls hosting Atlanta Silverbacks and Wednesday saw moneybags Manch…sorry, New York City travel to Long Island to play the legendary New York Cosmos.  Alas, whilst I would have loved to have seen both, I promised to be a little bit social and go out for dinner with the team in New York so it came down to a coin toss (which is ironically how they decide who will play at home in the US Open cup).  The RedBulls won.  Part of me was a little disappointed but in terms of logistics it was the better choice.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kWhilst New York Cosmos actually play in New York State rather than the RedBulls in New Jersey, it is a pain to get to.  Subway, then train into the heart of the ‘Burbs of Long Island then a school bus to Hofstra University where the James M. Shuart Stadium is.  Tickets were selling for over $50 on StubHub, which would get you a small place to park your bum on a metal bench, with no shelter from the forecasted storms heading in from the Atlantic.  You could also bet that Man…sorry, New York City wouldn’t be fielding “designated” players David Villa or Frank Lampard for the game.  Instead I paid the grand sum of $7.77 for 3 tickets for the RedBulls.  It was only fair that I treated Luge Pravda (of course) and TBIR rookie Tom Wells, who for those of you who want to be nosy, is the 13th different picture of “Tom Wells” on a Google Images search.  Generous to a tee.

RedBull Arena sits in Harrison, New Jersey, a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan.  I’m not sure what else would bring people to or from Harrison as alighting from the train all you can see is derelict buildings and parking lots that were once derelict buildings.  Since the 25,000 capacity stadium opened in 2010 the area around the stadium has remained, to put it politely “undeveloped”.  Whereas new build stadiums in this country always seem to be quickly surrounded by bland, uniform retail parks, the Americans, who love an out-of-town mall, seem to be missing a trick here.  There’s not even a spot to have a beer.

18690660598_6a98567ab8_kThe tickets I’d procured were in the name of Joey Levensberg.  As we entered the stadium we got a very warm welcome – “Welcome back Mr Levensberg.  Enjoy the game” – either he was a known name in these parts or the staff were simply very happy to see someone, anyone come to the game.  I had a feeling that based on previous experience that the crowd would be on the sparse side.  Back in 2012 I made my first trip here to see the RedBulls take on “rivals” DC United.  The place was rocking and both sets of fans gave a great account of themselves.  A few months later I returned and saw Sporting KC visit.  The official crowd that day was 11,000.  I’d estimate there was around a tenth of that in the stadium.  Apparently, the crowd was so low because the Yankees were playing on the same night.

Last year I was lucky to get a ticket for the World Cup Warm Up game between USA and Turkey – once again, superb atmosphere.  For this one we could choose which section we could have to ourselves.  I appreciate that the cup doesn’t hold the same interest as the league – that is a reserve of Germany and Germany alone it appears these days and that the Atlanta Silverbacks, who had just finished the Spring Season of the 2nd Tier NASL rock bottom weren’t the biggest draw, but surely the club could have given tickets away to local schools or community groups to boost the attendance?

18255958174_51fc4905a0_kThe visitors were managed by the English duo of ex-Enfield, Aylesbury and Welling United player Gary Smith, ably supported by ex-Leicester City winger and one-cap England wonder Steve Guppy.  However, with miserable league form had only been brightened up by an extra-time win away to NPSL (Third Tier) side Chattanooga in the previous round.  The RedBulls weren’t taking any chances and whilst across the Hudson and the East River, MLS rivals  New York City would be resting “designated” players Villa and Lampard, and Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be included in the LA Galaxy’s squad for their game against PSA Elite, their English star would be starting.

Many people may be surprised to hear that alongside the English duo, plus global stars Villa and Kaka, the MLS also features Bradley Wright-Phillips.  Son of Ian and brother of Shaun, it is fair to say he has been a bit of a sensation since he pitched up at the RedBulls in 2013 after leaving Charlton Athletic.  33 goals in just 51 games tells its own story.  Wright-Phillips can arguably call himself the most valuable Englishman in the MLS at the moment.

We waited for kick off which was supposed to be 7.30pm, but as usual in US sports when the time arrived, nobody was where they should be.  Luge had gone to sniff out some IPA whilst a small group of the RedBulls hardcore fans at the far end struck up a version of Twist and Shout.  At 7.39pm we got underway.  A couple brazenly came and sat in our section, although quickly apologised.  Apparently the low crowd was partly due to the Mets being at home and a new episode of Orange is the new Black on TV.

New York RedBulls 3 Atlanta Silverbacks 0 – RedBull Arena – Tuesday 16th June 2015
With fifteen minutes on the clock, Ronald Zubar tapped in from close range to put the home side 2-0 up and effectively end the tie.  The RedBulls had come out of the traps flying and dominated the opening exchanges with another ex-Charlton Athletic player, Lloyd Sam stroking home on 7 minutes after great work from Wright-Phillips and then Zubar in the right place at the right time.  It could have been an embarrassing night for the Silverbacks but the home side took their foot off the gas until the closing stages.

Bizarre licensing laws meant that despite even our poshest English accents couldn’t get us a beer after the 67th minute and our last cheer of the evening was reserved for Sean Davis (not that Sean Davis) scoring his first ever professional goal with just under twenty minutes to play.  It was time to leave and head back to the big city.  The official crowd had been announced as 5,585 – even the most ardent Red Bull fans would have scoffed at that number.  But it is what it is.  The US soccer fans seem to have the same attitude to the cup as those football fans in England, Italy or Azerbaijan.

Two days later the draw was made for the next round and what would you know, the Cosmos, fresh from beating New York City on penalties who make the trip to New Jersey to play the RedBulls. Let’s hope there are a few more fans in the stadium for that one.

Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs


A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.