I have been looking forward to this game every since MLS fixtures came out. Not only to watch the game itself, but to get a view of the wider picture of MLS and the state of the game in America. Plenty of folk on Twitter, fans, and media folk alike have been telling me that both MLS and the men’s game in general is growing in terms of quality and popularity so it was only right I experience it in person to see what all the fuss is about. For a while now it has been my view that some MLS fans and more worryingly (and in greater numbers) media members have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to how MLS is perceived both in the US and abroad. Note its is always MLS and never “The MLS”, This is because if you gave its full name and used the word “The” before it you would be saying THE Major League Soccer and not just Major League Soccer. This may sound like a small thing to most people (and to be fair it is) but MLS people do get rather touchy about it and it will cause an American MLS writer to meltdown if you get it wrong.
It may still be very early in the 2015/16 season, but I think it is far to say that I don’t think I will visit another city quite as glamorous as Los Angles this season; the palm trees, the heat, the beaches, Southern California really is quite the place. Given all this it’s not surprising that plenty of players looking for one last pay day in football have chosen to play for the LA Galaxy over the years. The LA Galaxy have always been one of the leading powerhouses in MLS winning the MLS Cup (the league championship) a record 5 times, the supporters shield (awarded to the side with the best regular season record) 4 times, the US Open cup (The American FA Cup) twice and the CONCACAF Champions Cup (their version of the champions league) once. In short their CV is second to none in MLS.
Anyway to the fun stuff, there is a very different culture to watching sport in America than there is here in the UK. The main difference being that quite a lot of stadiums are based away from the city centre (Downtown if you will) so drinking in pubs and such before the game is pretty much a non starter. This is where the great American past time of tailgating comes into its own. This basically involves fans turning up with a variety of beers, sodas, food etc, and having a bit of a party in the car park. Some even organize BBQs and stuff. As this was a WWF Show day out we thought that we would do our own mini tailgate. So instead of heading for a game with a laptop, recorder, notepad and other journalistic tools we grabbed our beers and crisps and deckchairs and headed out to the game.
We didn’t really go for the huge tailgate set up deciding just to go with a few beers, pretzels and some really hot and spicy cheetos. It seems that the official LA Galaxy supporters groups the LA Riot and the LA City Angels Brigade organize big pre game parties so we set ours up as far away from the official ones as possible, we wouldn’t want to cramp their style now would we. We may not have had the best range of snacks in the lot, but if you wanted great company and crappy unsalted pretzels (bought by mistake) then our tailgate was the one to be at.
The LA Galaxy has long been a favoured destination for overseas players looking for a last big pay deal. This season the buzz has all been about one player; former Liverpool player Steven Gerrard, who was set to make his home debut tonight. It’s fair to say this signing is a pretty big deal to soccer fans in LA and the club are really going the distance to get every last dollar out of his marketing value. As you drive through LA there are plenty of advertising signs with Gerrard’s mug on them with the word “Greatness” above it in an attempt to get the general LA sports fans interested. At the stadium I was surprised at the number of both Gerrard jerseys and Gerrard T-shirts that fans were wearing. Football shirts are very expensive in the States so clubs get around it by releasing player T-shirts like clubs in the NHL do. Even if good old Stevie G only plays a handful of games for the club the Galaxy bank balance will have been swelled considerably due to fans buying this crap by the bucket load. I was planning on getting a home shirt but the main store and smaller stores inside the stadium were only selling Gerrard ones. Overall though the merchandise range was pretty good with much of it being focused on celebrating last year’s MLS cup win, however it was disappointing to find that they didn’t sell badges of the club crest.
Getting into US sports stadiums is more in line with airport security than your average UK sports event in as much as you have to put all your belongings in a little plastic tray which gets screened as you go through a full body screen system, but thankfully is doesn’t take too long to get through. Upon entrance you get a free match day programme (always a plus) and on this occasion a free LA Galaxy Car flag and reversible sun hat. Food in American stadiums is pretty impressive and you can pretty much get any kind of food you want in the stadium.
Second only to food, American soccer fans’ passion is for scarves. They can’t get enough of them. This season the Galaxy are producing a different design of scarf for 20 of the club’s home games this season with each scarf design being based on one of the club’s jerseys from their 20 year history with only 500 of each design being produced, and given than each one will cost $29.99 (£20) It would be an expensive exercise collecting the whole set. There did appear to be a few left over from past games so I went for a late 90’s inspired one.
Before the game came another reminder that football is very much the family sport still in the States. Before the game the San Jose supporters group (note in America a group of fans that start the chanting and make the banners etc are called a supporters group) were escorted through the concourse of the stadium where lots of home fans were gathered. There must have been around 50 or so and they were making plenty of racket and having a fun time, but it was all in good humour. This would be unthinkable in England and I think we can all imagine the consequences of marching a group of Sheffield United fans for example through the home sections at say Barnsley, but here their appearance didn’t even raise an eyebrow as the ushers showed them to their section of the stadium.
The stadium itself (The stub hub centre) is an impressive enough soccer purposed facility. Most of the stadium is uncovered but given the LA weather, this isn’t a huge problem. We had seats on the front row near the halfway line which gave us a great view of the action. The pitch is slightly sunk below the stadium so even though we were in the front row it felt like we were looking down on the action.
I am not going to go into too much detail on the match itself, just head over to the Galaxy website for that. But I have to say it was a fantastic game. San Jose raced into an early two goal lead which seemed to wake the home side up. It was 2-2 at halftime though with the moment that everybody was waiting for happening in the 37th minute. With the Galaxy trailing 1-2 San Jose failed to clear the ball and it fell to Steven Gerrard on the left-hand side of the box who fired it home to send the fans and Galaxy merchandise manager into a frenzy. In the second half the Galaxy’s class showed as they hit another 3 goals to win 5-2, although Gerrard grabbed all the headlines the real star of the night was Robbie Keane who hit a hattrick. A huge hat tip to the two supporters groups who never stopped singing all night. The noise and banner displays from behind the goal were very impressive indeed and something lots of clubs can learn from. I can definitely say that I enjoyed my first taste of MLS action.
So what of the growth of the game in the US and where does it sit now? For a few years now I have long taken the view that MLS is to US sport what the EIHL (The ice top ice hockey league in the UK) is to the UK sports market, and I would say that I am broadly correct.
Soccer is growing in America but it will never become as big as one of the big four North American sports. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a place in American sport markets, it does, as it fits into the family market quite nicely in the same way as the EIHL does in the UK. At EIHL games you will see fans wearing jerseys from a wide range of NHL teams and likewise I saw plenty of Premiership shirts (Or EPL as it is known as in America) on show at the Galaxy match. There also seemed to be more banter between fans of different English sides as there was between LA and San Jose fans.
It’s easy for some fans of European football to look down their noses at MLS and American soccer but to view it in the same way as we view our own game is wrong, as they sit in different areas of our respective sporting spectrums. There are still things that I can’t stand about the men’s game stateside, mainly the commentators and some media folk. Perhaps if the aforementioned groups of people worked on promoting MLS better instead of trying to drag down other US sports and demanding people in the US watch it instead of European football, it may gain the recognition it deserves.