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Old 08-03-2003, 11:30 PM   #61
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this is a very long article about the US and Soccer.

from the guardian

United states

Manchester United's American tour has been a triumph on the pitch, but the real business was being done off it

Jamie Trecker
Sunday August 3, 2003
The Observer

After three days in nearby Portland, home of their main sponsor, Nike, Manchester United check in to Seattle .
Portland was something of an ironic destination: Nike, of course, is the epitome of the global marketing of health and fitness, but the city itself is best known for having the United States' highest per capita suicide rate. It rains all the time and alcoholism is endemic in the Pacific Northwest, along with a particularly insidious vein of heroin addiction. There is also an incredible array of strip clubs, some of which the players have allegedly enjoyed.

They can go out at night without being recognised and enjoy the anonymity. 'It is quite unusual,' concedes Ruud van Nistelrooy as he watches the American press corps besiege the only player with whom they are familiar, new goalkeeper Tim Howard.

This is because the now-departed David Beckham is by far the most recognisable footballer in America, eclipsing perhaps even Pelé.

Even so, the United squad are greeted by what proves to be the biggest crowd (66,722) to attend a game at the spanking new Seahawks Stadium, opened in 2002 for the NFL team at a cost to the city of $300million (£190m), with owner Paul Allen paying another $130m (£80m).

And in Seattle's case, the game is a wake-up call: soccer has outdrawn the sporting king, American football. Not since the heyday of the New York Cosmos in the 1970s has such a thing happened.

'Calling the game an overwhelming success would be an understatement,' says Ron Matthews, sports editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer . 'This was unlike anything we've seen.'

The streets, as prophesied in the local paper two days before, are a sea of green-and-white clad Celtic fans. 'We were so excited, and that enthusiasm was eclipsed by our lack of knowledge of the game, the naivety,' says Matthews, sheepishly. 'I really underestimated how little we knew. We had guys calling free-kicks penalties in the papers. It was something else to see.'

During the match, Van Nistelrooy makes fools of Celtic's defence, scoring and then setting up Ryan Giggs. The Dutchman is unquestionably the star as United thrash Celtic 4-0 in what could be described at best as a dull contest.

United are unprepared for the media onslaught they face - and the utter lack of knowledge about the sport US reporters bring to bear.

To be fair, American sportswriters have little call to cover the sport. Their league, Major League Soccer, is in its infancy and despite drawing about as many people to a game as a basketball or ice hockey match, is struggling against the historic xenophobia directed towards the game in the USA. Soccer isn't helped by the fact that the USA is a country that lives and dies on TV and MLS - and soccer in general - isn't a big ratings winner.

The first question asked of Van Nistelrooy, naturally, concerns Beckham. The second is what he thinks of Seattle. Van Nistelrooy, while polite, looks perplexed. The press conference goes downhill from there.

Sir Alex Ferguson is asked what he expects out of the tour and answers honestly - a cardinal sin in American TV - making for some rough moments for the Fox crew who wonder how they can spin their storylines into his comments about wanting to avoid injuries.

Reporters begin to mill about, talking to each other. The question of the day: will Howard make an appearance? The locals have little understanding that Howard isn't battling for the starting job. In any case, Howard is not made available, leaving many writers without the foggiest idea of what to pen for tomorrow's paper.

Downstairs at the concession stands, the merchandise has sold out. All of it. Hundreds of shirts at $75 (£45) each, thousands of hats at $25 (£15) and tens of thousands of programmes costing $10 (£6).

'I don't think they knew what the appetite was,' says Matthews. 'People were starving.'

Off to Los Angeles, for the only game on the tour that isn't completely sold out.

Sunday's match promises to be the first time in recent memory where a game featuring a Latin team - in this case Club America of Mexico - will not draw an overwhelmingly Hispanic audience. Nevertheless, the Mexican fans make more noise than their United counterparts and Club America prove the most physical side United will face on the tour. It's not your average pre-season friendly.

'I schooled the team a little bit on this,' says Howard. 'I don't think they knew what to expect.'

Uruguay striker Diego Forlan is cornered by an eager Mexican TV crew, happy to find someone who speaks the language. He tells them abruptly: 'You Mexicans are extremely crazy.'

United fans have turned out in force. It is impossible this weekend to get a room for under $100 a night. It is something of a culture shock for them - they wander about Los Angeles on foot (making them stick out like sore thumbs in a city where everyone drives) clutching their Virgin Tours folders. The sun is so bright it reflects off their pale skins - except for those too foolish to wear sunblock. By nightfall, they are as red as their shirts, and at least one family underneath me at a particularly rustic Travelodge are in considerable pain after spending most of the day at the pool.

Soccer remains an overwhelmingly ethnic game in America. With its mass of new immigrants, the USA enjoys a huge potential fan base for the sport, as shown by the success of the 1994 World Cup, still the competition's benchmark. The great difficulty for the sport is to hold the ethnic audience without losing the lucrative white suburban dollar. In soccer marketing, how to bridge the ethnic and racial gap remains the $64,000 question.

For a long time, it has been assumed that if an event can't sell to a white, suburban audience, it cannot succeed. The further assumption is that that audience will never enjoy themselves at a heavily ethnic game.

Stadium security notoriously 'sanitised' Chicago Fire matches, beating up Hispanic and Polish fans in the parking lot (my assistant was once mistaken for one of these infidels; I had to rescue him before he was ejected) for a number of years, effectively ensuring that the people who showed up were as white and suburban as could be.

This schism has made soccer marketing even more troublesome. When promoters, such as ChampionsWorld who are running this tour, bring high-quality opponents, it becomes a major sporting event and attracts not just soccer fans but sports fans as well.

Day-to-day matches are another story entirely. The US national team, despite playing many matches on home soil, rarely enjoy home-field advantage over Mexico or any of their Central American opponents. The situation has become so dire in California that US Soccer will no longer stage games against Mexico in Los Angeles after matches in front of 50,000-plus Mexican fans pelting the Yanks with batteries, bottles, bags of urine etc.

The USA, the defending champions, met Brazil in the Concacaf Gold Cup semi-finals last week in Miami and drew 35,000 people; 30,000 of whom were rooting for Brazil. Without a credible opponent, the USA can pull in under 6,000, as they did against Costa Rica in the third-place game, also in Miami.

Here in LA, many feel the market is saturated. 'They've just gone to the well so many times,' says Fox broadcaster Sean Wheelock. 'Mexican clubs practically live here they play so often.'

As a result, the Coliseum is about 30,000 fans light for a match won 3-1 with two goals from Forlan and one by Van Nistelrooy. But for Howard - who is used to playing in front of almost no one at all - it is wonderful. 'I wish these stadiums would look like this more often.'

Van Nistelrooy is overjoyed no matter what; he has brought his orthopaedic surgeon, Rich Stead man, to the game and is busily crediting him with saving his career. It does not go unnoticed that Steadman has had a more famous client; the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who is currently accused of sexual assault. 'Do you think he knows Kobe?' asks one overheated reporter, who runs off to try and catch the Dutch star.

The rest of the team are gracious but clearly befuddled. Thank God Los Angeles, like Portland, boasts some quite impressive strip clubs.

A little bit of politicking before Thursday night's match in New York against Juventus: United have staged a Tuesday-afternoon appearance on the front lawn of the United Nations building to mark the fact that the team has raised $1.6m (£1m) for the organisation's children's fund, Unicef.

Ryan Giggs, Roy Carroll, Quinton Fortune and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer show up and gamely run drills with the kids. Oranges are passed around. People make speeches. A security guard, identified in press reports as 'Mango' Pierre, juggles the ball gamely alongside the stars.

Across town, the English press corps seethes. 'It's been fucking useless,' says a big-name reporter from one of the broadsheets. 'Ferguson is childish and the players are kept away from us at all times.'

It's an odd situation heading into the back half of the tour. The team are trying to sell their brand, but appear to have turned a deaf ear to those who actually disseminate information: the press. The tour is getting decent coverage, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. Yes, this is a major event in terms of soccer, but no one cares about soccer at the newspapers.

What people do care about, however, is the New York Yankees, and the baseball club are heavily involved behind the scenes.

The Yankees' top two executives, Francis Wentworth and Keith Hightower, are on ChampionsWorld's board of directors. The Yankees have also signed a deal with the Red Devils to promote them. And while some wags in the press corps have gone out to try and buy United kits at Yankee Stadium (you can't), most of them utterly miss the connection.

The comparisons - and the synergy - between the two teams are not surprising. Both enjoy roughly a 100-year legacy in their respective sports and both have enjoyed uncommon success. And both spend money to make it. Lots of it.

The Yankees pay $145m-$160m (£90m-£100m) in salaries, up $24m (£15m) from last season and a whopping $45m (£28m) more than the closest big spender, the woeful New York Mets. Derek Jeter, the Yankees' best player, is on $16m (£10m) this season.

Manchester United spend 44 per cent of their income on salaries, paying up to the £5m Roy Keane reportedly earns. Ferguson is thought to be on £1.7m a season; the Yankees' manager, Joe Torre, earns nearly double that. That spending has made the Yankees one of America's great teams: feared, despised, and respected. And when they talk, they have a big stick to back it up.

This is seen here: the normally soccer-shy New York Times are willing to send me to every game. Even the reactionary New York Post - which regularly and gleefully bashes the sport - is covering this tour. Yet still the players and team seem distant, especially to their own media.

Some of this is just griping: at the media day for the press, many English journos were heard carping about the fact that daily types had to sit next to their Sunday colleagues (which doesn't happen in England). In the USA, that sort of thing is considered laughable - 'We thought they'd just be happy to get 90 minutes in a room with the guys and get access they almost never have,' says Rich Schneider, ChampionsWorld's press director. 'Instead I get a guy swearing at me.'

On Thursday night, the biggest crowd ever to attend a soccer match at Giants Stadium shows up, 79,005 strong. The Pope drew more here, a National Football League palace, but that was because they put seats on the field. The grass is placed in huge patches over the Astroturf that American football prefers. It is somewhat scrappy, but it doesn't seem to hinder the match. Pelé shows up for the first time since his testimonial some 20 years ago. He is as magnetic now as then - the crowd roar during his address. A pretty brunette in the first row blows him a kiss and, winking, he catches it.

New Jersey native Tim Howard starts off in goal for United. He is visibly nervous, crying during the introduction of the teams and getting a reassuring pat from Roy Keane. During the early portion of the match he is decent, the competition taking care of any nerves. He has his first touch after 28 seconds, his first significant save on 13 minutes. He's going to have a steep learning curve, but his United career is finally under way and his team have another win, 4-1.

A packed house, a rapturous welcome; all of these things suggest United are on the right track. Twenty other teams have already contacted ChampionsWorld - including Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool - about doing similar tours next year. Charlie Stillitano, the president of ChampionsWorld, is beaming; not too long ago he was fired as a general manager in MLS and was publicly called an incompetent. In today's New York Times, he is referred to that way again, this time with the suffix 'no more'.

Soccer could indeed have a future on these shores. Perhaps not as an American league - for 'Major' League Soccer is still a long way from being anything more than minor. But the United jerseys are flying and the tickets are selling.

And after all, as Pelé says, as he is rushed back into the safety of the tunnel, away from a pack of photographers: 'Hey, this is a great place for soccer, no?'

Key questions from the US press

'When you look up into the crowd, what do you think about?'
'How does your girlfriend or wife feel about you travelling away from home with all these beautiful American women about?'
'Is there a particular brand of underwear you favour?'
'Does it feel nice to play soccer?'

Jamie Trecker, the United States' foremost soccer writer, contributes regularly to ESPN and the New York Times

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