I have been a reader of World Soccer Talk (formerly EPLTalk) for around the last 4-5 years and during that time have been one of a privileged minority. As a season ticket holder to Stoke City, I am on the British side of the pond, from a footballing perspective. I’ve learnt over this time that culturally we consume our sport relatively differently, have come to the conclusion that neither way is better or worse than the other.
North American geography dictates that only the lucky few are able to physically attend the matches that the teams they follow are competing in. Relegation is quite literally a foreign concept. And following a front runner does not hold quite the same stigma as what we politely term ‘glory hunting’ in the United Kingdom.
However, my mantra is that if a team is local to you and representing your community in a sport that you follow, you should attend, providing funds permit and the price is reasonable. Chasing the high of being part of an overwhelmingly amazing atmosphere is essential to enjoying football in my opinion. Talksport’s Johnny Vaughan (love or loathe the Chelsea supporting DJ) is absolutely spot on with his tag line of ‘don’t let the football spoil a day at the football’, which is particularly true when it comes to enjoying the event as an away supporter. My experiences on the terraces stem from following my team from relegation to League One to promotion to the Premier League, and most surprising and satisfying of all into European competition. I have effectively been living a dream for the past seven seasons after a decade of dismay.
Therefore almost as soon as I had booked my North American odyssey, the first thing I did was search for tickets to MLS matches in the cities that I was visiting nine months later. Having battled foreign ticketing systems to get tickets, usually in the home end, for European ties I have to say that the process was simple. Sign up to North American Ticketmaster (other ticketing agencies are available), sign up for the relevant fan forums and club Twitter feeds, then wait for tickets to be released.
For the price of £70 ($112), I was able to get my hands on two tickets for the Vancouver Whitecaps game against DC United and two more for Seattle Sounders against Real Salt Lake. Job done and all that was left to do was struggle through nine months of work with the promise of three weeks on cloud nine in September 2014.
Fast-forward to that point and we hit Vancouver on September 3rd. And whilst we were doing our tourist thing, I gamely cajoled the wife into wandering toward BC Place to establish where it was and how best to get there and back on the night of the match. The venue is well served by local transport and is probably best described as a 15-20 minute walk from downtown Vancouver. We had a good look around and took in the excellent Terry Fox statue and learnt about his magnificent story. We were all set for the match then.
Terry Fox Plaza
On the evening of the game we made our way there on foot, which is always the best way to begin savoring an atmosphere in my opinion. People with their shirts and scarves on were flowing like streams and tributaries along the side street; into the main roads like arterial rivers flowing into the estuary around the stadium, which becomes a sea of bobbing heads and crashing sounds. What always makes this better is when it’s a night match, dusk turning to evening and the senses heightened by the changes in temperature and appearance, familiar to unfamiliar and vice versa. From this romantic point of view, the timing of both matches with 7.45pm and 8.00pm kickoffs was a definite advantage.
Outside BC Place, there was plenty happening to entertain the fans walking up to make their way into the ground. We sampled the atmosphere of the Atlantic opposite the stadium, which was jam packed, and first spotted something which was a theme at both matches – a very large proportion of the following being women and children (some still attached to the breast). Definitely a different demographic to what I have been used to over here in England.
We entered the stadium simply enough, a quick bag check which is the norm in the UK, and away we went. The first difference inside was the width and welcoming nature of the concourse inside, plenty of choices of food and drink enhanced by allowing independent stalls to sell their wares. Interestingly a makeshift club shop selling merchandise made up part of the concourse and was worth a browse.
After having a good look at all this and discussing the differences we had identified already (the wife being a veteran of 50+ stadia in the UK having worked for our local rivals (Port Vale – nicknamed The Soap Dodgers for obvious reasons) and enjoyed a Football League press pass and the complimentary benefits this ‘golden ticket’ imbues), we ventured from the positively bleached bowels of BC Place to our seats. Sitted in a corner of the stadium, the leg room was excellent, and the view perfect for the position. The jumbotron being an excellent piece of technology and a relative anomaly to us in relation to football stadia.
Onto the match itself; studying the line-ups, Vancouver’s captain Andy O’Brian and manager Carl Robinson were recognizable but they were joined by DC United’s Lewis Neal as faces I knew. Neal came through Stoke’s academy during our time in League One and played a fair few games for us, moving onto Preston North End, Shrewsbury Town and Orlando City. The tempo of the game was much slower than I’m used to and whilst the will to craft out the snappy passing game that the sophisticates desire was there, it did feature more than a few long balls up to Darren Mattocks who had something of a cart horse quality. DC were content to play on the break and managed to hit the woodwork on a couple of occasions, generally causing more panic in the Whitecaps defense than they suffered themselves.
Amidst this, we were also watching the fans, probably the most alien experience as they were all supporting Vancouver. The lack of an away following probably reduced this element as a spectacle but that is not to say that the Whitecaps ultras behind their goal had a good go at generating some extra heat to what was turning into an ultimately drab contest with DC United apparently happy with a point and the Whitecaps severely lacking a cutting or creative edge. There was little tension amongst the crowd without the away following, and it is very easy to see why the clubs can target the young family demographic. Given these are the people likely to play the game and develop an understanding of it makes perfect sense to get in early with them and develop an allegiance, for MLS they are miniature pioneers – cash cows of the future and effectively the foundation of continuous fandom in North America.
Overall, I would describe the encounter on the pitch in Vancouver as lower level Championship to upper League One. I have been there, seen that and got the T-shirt. Both teams were content with not losing, to maintain their positions and really neither had that spark needed to blitz the opposition. As a sporting event and everything that goes with it, it easily matched the rugby and football that I have attended over here in England. Off the field, the act really is Premier League, particularly the use of digital media which I found effectively used by the Whitecaps in promoting their brand. I would love to attend a local derby with Portland or Seattle to see the difference again and if there is the same needle generated as we experience when city or county rivals play each other.
Moving onto Seattle this was an altogether more American experience from my perspective. Again to help get our bearings, we had a stroll to Centurylink Field whilst we were enjoying the city. From the outside it looked a beast of a place, and seeing how well located it appeared, it only added to the anticipation of the coming match day.
The facilities on the way and around Centurylink Field are excellent. There are pubs and restaurants galore, all geared up to welcome Sounders fans and literally buzzing in the couple of hours before kick-off. Inside the stadium, again, the set up was second to none, with oodles of choices and a proper club shop set up to allow you to purchase Sounders and Seahawks merchandise. Probably my favorite thing about the way the stadium was set up for the fans was a sign before you entered into the stadium seating, explaining what to expect. Prominently at the bottom of this sign it explained that it would likely be ‘standing up for 90 minutes’, positively encouraging something we get berated for back home.
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