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English soccer fan shares experience of watching MLS games

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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.

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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.

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BC Place

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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34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Warren Litsinger

    October 18, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Thank you, Ian! It’s a real treat to read an erudite EPL fan’s impressions of America’s football scene. You did well to travel to Seattle for a match; it’s definitely the most electrifying venue in the league. I agree with other commentators, on your next trip you should try for Seattle visiting Portland. Portland is the most beautiful city on the circuit, and the derby atmosphere– in a more intimate, soccer-specific staduim– would not fail to bring you joy.

    In the days when there was no real pro league in the US, I, like so many American fans, cut my teeth on European football and especially on the English Premier League. The level of play in England is spectacular. Of course you have 130 years of tradition, multiple league levels, promotion-relegation and constant European competition– and, of course, lots and lots of money– to whip up fan frenzy and attract the best players from around the world. A visit to a Premier League venue is high on my bucket list.

  2. Guy

    October 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Great read, ICK! 🙂

  3. Pakapala

    October 11, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you! Great article. Very well written. I am glad you had a great experience and that you avoided the disaster of attending a game over here in Boston/Foxboro. 😉

    • BSTNFAN

      October 13, 2014 at 10:21 am

      I wouldn’t call it a disaster, but until the Revs can get a soccer stadium in Boston or at least subway accessible, it won’t be the same experience.

  4. Jax

    October 11, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Not to take away from anything the author said, but an MLS experience is incomplete without attending a Portland home game. Even the run of the mill regular season games are truly unique and memorable experiences, not to mention the rivalry games.

    • IanCransonsKnees

      October 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Funnily enough we had tried to squeeze Portland into the trip but just didn’t have time as we’re well off retirement age. We’re planning on doing it next time. A very
      good friend have mine has mates in and around Portland so I know what a cracking place it’s supposed to be in general.

      In all honesty I’ll take any tips that any of you can give me as we had such an outstanding time, surely insider knowledge that you chaps have would only make it better next time. Conversely if any of you make the reverse pilgrimage ask the Gaffer for my details and I’ll give you the best advice I can.

  5. AEK

    October 11, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Thanks for this very insightful trip into an BPL fan’s view of NA/US soccer. One thing the MLS needs in order to grow is more regional rivalries similar to those like Manchester, etc. Living in Florida I can envision such rivalries like Miami V Orlando, Tampa V Jacksonville, and heading north into Atlanta. There are many soccer fans in this part of the US but MLS is nowhere to be seen. Rumors of expansion are only that, rumors. There are nice stadiums everywhere including university and professional that sit empty 99% of the time. Great weather, lots of kids playing, and so on would make this a hotbed for growth. I get my fix by watching Barclay’s on TV, but would love to lay out some $ to see the real thing.

    • IanCransonsKnees

      October 11, 2014 at 1:31 pm

      Take a trip to Stoke. Flights to Manchester and accommodation shouldn’t be ridiculous. There’s plenty to see and do and as we’re central it’s an excellent base. You could get in the Manchester teams, Liverpool teams and Midland clubs all being within 90 minutes of each other. London’s good, the rest of the country’s better.

  6. goatslookshifty

    October 10, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Everyone’s giving ICK ideas for his next U.S. footy trip. I think this was a clever way for him to start a Kickstarter campaign to pay for his next few holidays. I’m on to ya, mate. 🙂

    • Iancransonsknees

      October 10, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      I was thinking more a reverse Bill Bryson. Me and the Mrs have fallen for Vancouver and are determined to get back for longer than the 4 days we spent there. It’s pretty much the perfect city and deserves the fantactic reputation it has. Plans so far are 7-10 days in BC, move down to Portland for 4 and Chicago for 4. There’s no direct flight to or from Vancouver so we may as well use that to our advantage.

      I’m pleased that people enjoyed our take on MLS. Whenever we’ve travelled abroad we always treat being in someone else’s country as a privilege and it definitely pays.

      Now in terms of a kickstarter fund if anyone wants to pay for me to watch the British Lions rugby tour to South Africa in a few years I’ll snap your hand off.

      • JESCaps

        October 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

        I’m glad you enjoyed Vancouver and are thinking about coming back. It was such a shame that you saw us play DC United. It really was the 2nd or 3rd worse performance of the year! Added to that is that we have no natural/historic rivalry with DC leads to a pretty flat performance and atmosphere. If you saw us play a team in our conference, or better yet, one of our Cascadia rivals (as you suggested) it would have been far superior. The one other issue is that MLS puts a cap on the number of away fans. About 1,500 to Seattle and about 1,000 in Portland.

  7. Steve

    October 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Good read. MLS needs to stop bringing over has beens. I would like to see a more formal talent arrangement with EPL squads to bring over some younger academy players.

    • Fritz

      October 10, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      MLS is far too ambitious to rely on partnerships with EPL teams. These types of relationships only serve to set into stone that the MLS team is the minor club in comparison.

      • BSTNFAN

        October 13, 2014 at 10:16 am

        How would you classify the relationship that Man City has by owning NYCFC?

  8. Americano & Proud

    October 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    It’s nice to see some level headed commentary about MLS. A lot of European fans write the league off without even attending any matches, and while the league has some things to work on you can clearly see the growth of the league since the early 2000’s.

    • Mufc77

      October 10, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      I don’t need to go to a NFL Europe game to know its a vastly inferior product to the NFL. Why can’t American fans just except that for a lot Europeans the MLS is a vastly inferior product to the BPL or La liga and we simply don’t have a interest in following it.

      • B

        October 11, 2014 at 6:56 am

        The author is pretty clear that the product on the field of the two MLS matches was inferior to the BPL. I don’t know a rational MLS fan that would argue that it is on par with the BPL. The article was more a comparison of atmosphere, environment and experience, and he clearly felt that the MLS shared a similar quality on those terms.

        • IanCransonsKnees

          October 11, 2014 at 7:14 am

          Spot on. One of the things I didn’t mention is that we were both of the opinion that the USMNT will make the world cup final in the next 25 years if the on field element of the league can catch up with the off field element.

      • JESCaps

        October 13, 2014 at 3:35 pm

        That is a little dopy to say that the MLS is up to the level of the BPL. How many leagues in the world are above the quality of the BPL? Few if any. I know it is hard for Europeans to hear this but by most objective measures MLS is one of the top 10 leagues in the world. Most European fans ideas about soccer in North America are still rooted in the 1970’s or 80’s.

  9. Rob

    October 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Great read. It’s been interesting watching the league grow and the football improve on the pitch over the years.

  10. Mufc77

    October 10, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Glad you enjoyed your trip. If you ever go to a philadelphia union game bring a gun for protection.

  11. LaticsFan

    October 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I’m a Brit who moved to the US a few years ago. This season I had a chance to go to an MLS game in KC. Great new stadium, great fans, great atmosphere.

  12. B

    October 10, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Excellent article. Promotion/Relegation is a way of solving A TON of the issues surrounding not only the MLS but also the US’s talent development and identification difficulties.

    I’d recommend Columbus on your next trip as well.

  13. Dennis

    October 10, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Great article, thanks for visiting! I just want to give my apologies for the game in Vancouver. That was almost the worst game to watch all season, second only to the 3-0 loss to Portland a week prior. Hopefully on your next visit it will be a better game!

    • JESCaps

      October 13, 2014 at 3:47 pm

      Toss in the Montreal game as well. That game was a stinker on every level.

  14. Ian

    October 10, 2014 at 11:43 am

    I always find it interesting and highly valuable to read the opinions of Brits who’ve actually attended MLS matches. 99.9% of the drivel I see on the internet are naysayers, both foreign and domestic, who’ve never stepped foot inside an MLS stadium, nor watched an entire 90 minutes on TV. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Ian!

    As for the varying degrees of atmosphere and quality in MLS, of course they exist. Not every stadium is full of passionate supporters, and not every team is on par with the English Championship’s upper echelons. The silver lining is that some teams DO have world class fanbases and respectable quality on the pitch.

    In order for every team to raise its quality and atmosphere, more fans must attend games, pumping more money into our domestic league. It’s a simple formula, really. At this stage of MLS’ existence, fandom is still like an investment. You have to invest time and money in order to see a return in the future. And that return will come. We’re seeing as much in the Pacific Northwest in terms of atmosphere, and Seattle, specifically, in terms of quality. The LA Galaxy are playing some of the best soccer in MLS history too.

    In short, support your local team. If you don’t have one, pick one and watch their games on TV. That’s the best way to grow the domestic game.

    • Rob

      October 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm

      Well said.

  15. Todd

    October 10, 2014 at 11:20 am

    For your next trip, you should check out a Portland/Seattle game. In either city, that game is an epic derby. I think Portland fans’ away tifo this year said our best: “we’re not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with us.” Two very different venues, for sure. A 66,000 person megaphone to the sky in Seattle. A 21,000 person cauldron of fury in Portland.

    Glad you enjoyed yourself in our city.

  16. Paul

    October 10, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Just wanted to say that you may want to change your headline to “NA” instead of “US” as contrary to the beliefs of some, Vancouver a part of Canada, which is not in the US.

    • Guy

      October 12, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      Title are usually down to the Gaffer.

  17. jack

    October 10, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for the kind words about my team and fans =) Glad you had a good time in Seattle!

  18. goatslookshifty

    October 10, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Seattle is most likely an exception to the rule regarding attendance and atmosphere. Plenty of other MLS venues are lacking in those categories.
    I have to disagree with the game played in the U.S. though. No need for it. Top English clubs are doing just fine flogging shirts and filling stadiums before the season starts. Let the British Isles keep its league football on home soil.
    Glad you enjoyed yourself though.

    • Andrew

      October 10, 2014 at 10:43 am

      There are quite a few places that have good atmospheres. KC is great. Portland is great. Vancouver is good (and is great when Seattle or Portland visit). Salt Lake City is great.

      The biggest problem is the lack of away support. And that’s a hard problem to solve. It’s expensive to travel in MLS. Seattle generally travels the best, but except for Vancouver and Portland away, you’re not likely to get more than 100 supporters.

      • Dylan Vanderhoof

        October 10, 2014 at 12:03 pm

        This really varies from trip to trip. Seattle had over 250 to the US Open Cup final in Philly, and to New York a week later, thousands of miles away.

        We also regularly travel 200-300 to LA and San Jose.

        That said, for the moment that’s about our limit, the distances and cost are too great. 200-300 is a far cry from the away sections you’ll see in England and Europe.

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