Saying No to Soccer Exhibitionists
By Simon Allen
Well it's that time of year again!
The time where European clubs come over Stateside to play a few exhibition matches for the massive amounts of American fans that just can't seem to get enough Euro-soccer.
And it's also the time of year where I shout on my show, The World Wide Soccer Podcast, for American soccer fans NOT to buy the tickets and watch them.
It's not a new concept. European clubs have been coming to the United States for a very long time. America is where the money is (and has been for a while.) The First club to visit America was called The Pilgrims. They showed up in 1905. The Pilgrims were essentially an England All-Star team comprised of some of the best players at the time from clubs like Fulham, Sheffield United and West Ham United. The Pilgrims returned in 1909 and played 22 matches from October 2nd through November 16th. The Score lines were extreme with the Pilgrims winning 10,11,12,13 to zero. They only lost twice to Haverford (1-0) and Fall River Rovers (2-1) but over all, The Pilgrims left America with 16 wins and a record of 134 goals for and 12 goals against in 22 matches.
In 1911, Corinthians showed up and played soccer here. In 1921, An All Star Scottish team trekked the Atlantic to play 6 matches, beating Bethlehem Steel 8-1 in the process. A year later, the ladies got into the action as The Dick Kerr Ladies from Preston came to the East coast to wow Americans with their soccer talent. Of course there were no Women's teams in America to meet them when they arrived so the 8 match exhibition was played against the prominent men's teams of the time. Where's my time machine?
In 1946, Liverpool showed up in America. It was a year after the War had ended and management thought it would be a good idea to send the team Stateside to fatten up a bit. Supposedly, Liverpool were not getting enough good food as England was still under the Rationing system so a long journey to America where food and friendly matches with less than stellar players were abundant was in order.
They ended up playing a lot of “All-Star” teams and thrashing them. In Philadelphia's Yellow Jacket Stadium, in front of seven thousand people, on May 26th, LFC beat The Philly Stars 12-0.
Liverpool came back to The East Coast in 1948 and played an All Star New York team twice. LFC beat them 5-1 and 5-2 which pretty much meant nothing to them at the time other than a kick about in Randalls Island and Ebbets Field. Liverpool probably didn't take any notes on the opposition which may have been a good thing because the same lad that scored all three goals went on to score against the National Team two years later at the World Cup- Brookhaten's Joe Gaetjens. Liverpool also beat Philly 5-2 and on that squad was American legend Walter Bahr. I'm sure no notes were taken on him either.
I could go on. Clubs from all over the world have come here to America to empty our pockets and thrash the locals ever since then. Decade after decade...except for the late 80's to early 90's which was a barren soccer wasteland in America... but in 1960 Man U came over and thrashed the Ukrainian Nationals of Philly 10-0. 1860 Munich beat the All-Stars in LA 8-1. In 1970 Celtic beat the New England All-Stars 7-1.
During the Old NASL days, the bigwigs turned things around and for the first time American squads were flying to other countries to showcase the circus that was Pele and the New York Cosmos. For once American Soccer was sticking foreign money into their wallets and showcasing their weird brand of football. With the formation of MLS, foreign clubs came jaunting back and every summer, Soccer fans around America are treated to what is perceived as the best soccer in the land. And it didn't take long either. In 1996 Fiorentina beat The MetroStars 4-0 after beating the New England Revolution 2-0 two days earlier. But The foreign clubs had changed their strategy by then. Rather than sending out full squads, clubs would have their stars play for one half (or not show up at all) and then switch most of their squad to academy players in the second. MLS squads would win rare matches against the likes of AC Milan in 05 but still lose to Barcelona in 08. Later foreign squads did something that bypassed American clubs altogether and just came to America and played each other in exhibition matches. I'm almost sure some bigwig in Europe figured out that there were probably more Man U fans in America than the entire Western Conference teams fan base combined and dollar signs appeared in front of his eyes. That wasn't a new concept either to be honest. In June of 1968 Napoli played an exhibition match against Santos in Yankee Stadium to reported crowds of 43 thousand -wowing the folks who were used to seeing the New York Generals “play” in front of 5500 people week in and week out.
Flash forward to this summer and the choice of exhibition soccer is waiting for fans.
July 27th, Everton plays Juventus in San Francisco- you can sit in section 144 of AT&T Park for $65 and watch them. Check out the stadium map and see just where section 144 is and let me know if you think that's worth the money. I'll wait! Check the map out. See! Some people would think that's a bit of a rip off but if you have $65 burning a hole in your pocket, what you do with it is up to you. For $66 dollars you can take two of your friends and watch The Quakes play Seattle Sounders in the Supporters South Section and actually watch a meaningful match. Granted watching Everton jog around the pitch against Juve might be fun but I'm betting the atmosphere won't be as intense.
Juve is a pretty big team and the idea of Serie A squads coming to America to promote their brand is fine.The disposable income is still here and there is a Calcio fan base that goes crazy for Top Tier Continental Soccer. With that said...July 20th, You can watch Norwich City play San Jose Earthquakes at Buckshaw Stadium for 18 bucks and four days later you can watch them again as they take on the Portland Timbers. This begs the question-Why is Norwich coming to America? How many Canaries fans can there be here? 2? 3? Granted even the most outrageously ironic hipster can afford the tickets but how starved for European soccer must you be to hand away your money to watch an 11th place Premier League team in your own back yard? The Quakes and Timbers boast some of the best and hardcore fans in MLS who watch good football week in and week out within their respective clubs. Timbers play Philly on the 20th and then both San Jose and Portland meet on the 27th. What does playing Norwich do for them? If this is a cash grab for Norwich then I suppose coming to America and trying to promote the brand is well worth it. But for the Top Tier American Sides, I'm not quite sure what's in it for them. For $42 (but you can go as high as $310) you can watch Stoke City play FC Dallas on July 27th. FC Dallas has an average attendance of about 14,600 people that brave the heat to watch their team play soccer. But playing these squads does nothing for the MLS teams. It's lose-lose. If an MLS squad beats a mid table Euro team-The Euro team is on vacation and it's a meaningless scrimmage. If the mid level Euro team beats the MLS team- fans flail their arms about screaming that MLS is a weak league. You can't win!
On top of all that, I'm not sure one extra MLS fan is created by watching these matches. When Chelsea played Seattle, I was pretty confident in saying that Chelsea fans in the Cascadia region didn't suddenly become Sounders fans. It's pretty hard to convince a soccer fan (who isn't a fan of American soccer) to give American soccer a chance when their team is thrashing the locals. Or worse...the vacationers are toying around with their opposition, completely exposing the glaring differences between the caliber of players on each side. No one I know who watched Barca beat Redbull in 08 ( I flew cross country to see the match!) with a Barca jersey on said “I think I'm going to support NY now!” after they got beat...badly.
Let's talk about our disposable income.To watch the International Champions Cup doubleheader at Dodger Stadium on August 3rd, you'll be paying $468 if you want to get even a decent glimpse of who's on the pitch. Top Tickets are $1019.00 each if you want to get up close and personal. Some people are very lucky to have that kind of money but for $372 you can get season tickets, Corner Plus, for the LA Galaxy. Since 2005 I've been doing a podcast and every year around this time I have said the same thing. Your money is better spent on MLS than it is with these meaningless matches. I know Man U fans in Los Angeles that will fly to wherever The Red Devils are playing in the US to watch them but they haven't once been to StubHub to watch the Galaxy. The same fans will take their kids along with them, the same kids that if you ask them now about The Galaxy, don't know they exist. Some of these 10 and 11 year olds who know about both teams in LA, have never seen a match and insist that American soccer is boring and not as good as Premier League Soccer. Once a year little fans are treated to exhibition soccer and for the rest of the year they don't bother with MLS. Once again, I'm not sure what these matches in America do for domestic soccer teams. They certainly aren't creating new fans!
For American Soccer fans who don't watch American Soccer there is Messi and Friends in Chicago on July 6th. For $60 to $300, fans of international soccer can watch a game with some pretty fantastic players. Unless of course you are in Los Angeles. Lionel Messi cancelled the “high profile” charity match in the City of Angels and the folks who were doing his PR had a fit. Ralina Shaw, the VP of PR for El Padrino Spirits Inc, the folks in charge of the Messi and Friends Vs The Rest of the World match came out with these wonderful statements. “...the only losers in this scenario are the fans that were looking forward to the game and the City of Los Angeles...it is clear that they (Lionel Messi's management team) have no respect for these fans and this market...”
Of course they don't! Messi's management team is charging money for what is essentially a pick up game with a bunch of vacationing millionaire soccer players. The only meaningful part of the whole thing is that some money goes to Charity, which by the way is the only loser in the whole debacle. Respect! The only thing Euro clubs respect is the amounts of cash we throw at them when they come to town. Every year, Sir Alex would come to America and hand us a crock of crap about how America was becoming a soccer country and how American soccer was improving and soccer fans ate that up like a turd gyro on a Wedgewood plate. Let's be honest...Man U was here to pick up our dollars and their management would say anything to make it easy for us to hand it over. I don't think Sir Alex gave a flying rodents behind whether American Soccer was improving or not.
The exhibitions aren't even useful for the players either. Yes, Sir Alex snagged Tim Howard but I can't think of a player that moved to a big Euro Club from MLS because he was spotted at one of the friendly summer matches playing against them. It might have even hurt their chances for moving. Reminds me of Legend, Walter Bahr. Recently, I had the pleasure of asking Mr Bahr some questions on The Vuvuzela show in Philly. One of the other hosts asked him if he ever got approached by European clubs to go play abroad. Mr Bahr mentioned that he played against Liverpool when they toured America but that playing abroad wasn't really an option because the pay wasn't much better than what he was earning in America. When I heard that I thought that this man was the best American player of his generation and that perhaps he could have played for Liverpool. But when your team gets beaten 12-0, the coaches tend to dismiss your individual talent. How many players in Americas long soccer history have been dismissed by Euroclubs because they lost so badly the coaches didn't give them a second look?
The Summer has a lot of soccer to watch. But the meaningful matches are played in MLS stadiums across America between teams fighting for MLS Cup. Meaningless friendly exhibitions take money and fans away from the real action. What do you think?