MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER IN NEW ENGLAND REQUIRES MAJOR ADJUSTMENTS TO STOP APPEARING TO BE MINOR LEAGUE. Plus: An Interview with Ryan Guy
Posted by tonybiscaia on October 10, 2011
A View From The Fort: By JIM DOW
A number of years ago I made a series of trips to photograph a couple of hundred minor league baseball parks all across the country, from Aberdeen, Maryland to Wichita, Kansas (sorry, no “Y’s” or “Z’s”) literally from coast to coast and border to border.
In my travels I found out many things about professional sport in the United States, the most interesting being that at minor league level, from short season single “A” to “AAA,” just one notch below the big show, people go to games because they like baseball and want a fun evening out, not because they have any deep attachment to the teams, the players or how well they are doing in the Pioneer or SALLY League standings.
That said, by the mid-1990’s minor league baseball was burgeoning as it had in the immediate post-WW II period, with attendance records being set and new ballparks being built all across the land. Almost every game I attended had a healthy crowd that paid low prices for their seats but spent big money on beer, hot dogs and souvenirs. This has continued to be the case up through the present day.
MLS started up in the midst of this boom and many of the original teams sought to catch on through some of the same tactics; low prices, loud announcers, flashy uniforms, dippy contests and mascots, crazy rules and silly names like Clash and Wizards; everything that might make a purist vomit yet give a family of four a cheap night out with some sport thrown in.
Fast forward to 2011 and sample the atmosphere at places like Portland, Philadelphia or, gasp, Red Bull Arena and one might think they were in Buenos Aires, Istanbul or Glasgow, albeit without the aggro. Of course if they went to Gillette Stadium, where the castrati rule and everybody gets their fifteen seconds on the Jumbotron, it can seem sixteen years and still the same, in fact even more sanitized, thanks to the now no longer new stadium and the fact that many of the crustier fans have drifted away to their couches and pubs for their soccer.
When MLS started in 1996 there were far fewer places for people to go to watch games. Fox Sports World, now Soccer Channel, started a year later in 1997 and Gol TV didn’t launch until 2003. ESPN was only marginally involved in soccer and the internet wasn’t a viable source for streaming matches at that point. All of this has, of course, changed, providing an ever-expanding alternative to attending live MLS matches.
While the salary cap has been a limitation in terms of acquiring the kind of players needed to directly compete with what can be seen daily on TV, some MLS clubs have been able to adjust to the new realities by investing over and above what players can be paid. Scouting and soccer-specific stadiums are obvious examples, larger coaching and training staffs, greater cultural adjustment, logistical and language support for foreign imports and young players, less so but critically important.
Although designated players have grabbed the headlines, bringing in competitive, combative, youngish to mid-career foreign signings or prospects with something to prove has turned out to be the best way to put on enough of a spectacle on the field that it transfers to the stands and makes people want to come back, as supporters of the team, not just fans of the game.
In the Revolution’s case there seems to be some headway being made with the likes of Caraglio, Fagundez, Feilhaber, Lekic, Soares and Zerka becoming regulars as the season has progressed (admittedly a bit of an ironic term). Certainly there have been failures and misjudgments but, going forward, there are six or more, reasons to hope for improvement, particularly if more good players are added to the base.
However, atmospherically this hasn’t happened at Gillette Stadium and perhaps never will. The majority of people who trek to the matches out in the hinterlands are, in effect, like the “prawn sandwich brigade” once decried by Roy Keane, the former captain of Manchester United. While folks don’t go to Revs games to bask in the glow of a consistent winner as at Old Trafford, they do see their trip as a fun evening with soccer as the focus and not the result. They are fans of the game, not the team and don’t identify with its’ fate. This is in opposition to Bill Shankly’s dictum of the game being more important than life and death, a credo that most people who call themselves supporters certainly understand if not subscribe to.
In many ways the experience for the corporately and inappropriately christened, “best fans in MLS,” is precisely like that of anyone who attends a Bruins, Celtics, Patriots or Red Sox sporting event; the entire presentation of the match is micro-managed to a fare-the-well, from advertising everything under the sun in an over-excited voice to leading canned cheers, ex. “deeeefense.” I’ve been near-blinded and deafened by the Jumbotron at the “New” Boston Garden. I remember the last Pats game I ever attended where 60,000 corporate shills dressed as fans waved “Bank of America” emblazoned towels at the opposition when prompted by the omnipotent, marginally hysterical stadium announcer.
To be fair, I’ve also been to Pats games where an opposition touchdown was greeted by a full fifth of Jim Beam flung at the helmet of the ball carrier from the BU Field equivalent of the Fort. And who can forget the drunken horde of knuckle-draggers that carried the better part of a metal goal post out onto Rte 1 only to have it tangle in some high-tension wires. Bruins games? Back in the day, when the old Garden had boxes full of individual fancy chairs, I recall an entire section of boys from the office all decked out in suits, coats and fedoras two-handing one another over the head with the plush seats that they had been sitting on seconds before. Then there were the ever-present puddles of puke that dotted every concourse from Foxborough through Fenway to Causeway Street.
Unquestionably the Kraft family did the right thing when they decided to clean up the goings on around Patties games at the old stadium but when they built their new pleasure palace for Tom-Tom and his pals the decision to create a cookie cutter, squeaky-clean atmosphere has almost completely strangled the unique, participatory nature of watching soccer.
Go to a game at any of the world’s great venues for atmosphere like La Bonbonera in Buenos Aires, Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Istanbul, Celtic Park in Glasgow and now Jeld-Wen Field in Portland – the crowd sets the tone for everything, not the announcers, not the mascots, not the Rev Girls, not the adverts on the PA or the sycophantic sheep mugging on the Jumbotron. It is a simple yet potent blend of the quality of the players, the refs, the weather and the crowd left to their own devices, nothing more and is a far more nuanced and rewarding “game-day experience” than the plastic, packaged, suburban scene we have in New England.
These are hard words and written with regret but after witnessing a 21,000 crowd that had all the pubescent vigor of a Harry Potter preview, followed a week later by less than half that with no energy at all, the unavoidable conclusion is that as far as MLS goes the folks at Foxborough are decidedly in the wrong century.
Two quotes appeared on the same page in this week’s Sunday Boston Globe sports section and with apologies to Greg A. Bedard and Frank Dell’Apa who dug them out and wrote them up, they bookend the team’s current problems and potential solutions straight from the horse’s mouths.
“At the beginning, he was really helpful in a football sense. I needed to talk to someone, In any business I’m in, I try to find the people that I think are the smartest or know more than I know, and ask their advice on things…” Robert Kraft, Revolution investor/operator, speaking to Greg A. Bedard about Al Davis (10/09/11)
“Fans don’t come out and support, which is our fault. We don’t produce enough good players out there that are exciting, that are good enough for them to come out and support… you can hear a pin drop (last) night and it’s frustrating playing in front of a dead stadium, playing in front of people not supporting you. It takes a toll… It’s just frustrating being a part of this right now… we’re not good enough and we’re not putting a good product out there. And we’ve got to change that for next season.” Shalrie Joseph, Revolution captain, speaking to Frank Dell’Apa after losing to San Jose (10/08/11)
Mr. Kraft, meet Mr. Joseph, now please sit down and listen to what he has to say.
Ryan Guy signed on with the Revolution on 9 June of this season and only began to play with some regularity over the past fortnight. He brings speed to a lineup sorely lacking in that department, plus the ability to strike a low, hard but playable cross while moving towards the byline. During his time in Ireland he displayed a good strike rate for a winger/midfielder, scoring 25 goals in 139 appearances.
I spoke with him after training before the San Jose match.
JIM: You played for four years in Ireland?
RYAN: Yes, I played there for four years, exactly right out of college I went straight there.
JIM: And your decision to go, since you were drafted in the second round by Dallas of MLS, was that based on thinking that you might get into the European pyramid?
RYAN: It was, I’d say first and foremost it was the dream of playing in Europe, secondary to that was the fact that at that time with… MLS and the way contracts were going there with developmental contracts there was a very high percentage chance that I would have been on very little money…
JIM: Very little, most likely…
RYAN: Yes, so the opportunity to get a lot more money over there was also alluring to me but I’d say really the dream of going over there and playing there and coming into the pyramid of European football was the main motivating factor.
JIM: We have a league in this country, it has been here for 16 years and it is pretty good, yet we have a base of young players whose dream is to go elsewhere. How would you approach that if you were a general manager, or a commissioner, or an investor?
RYAN: Well, I think the league is going in the right direction, I think first and foremost, we have to get the minimum salary up to something equivalent to Europe. I think the standard of soccer here is growing in the sense that kids are going to want to start playing here because of the level, I think the level factor is closing, the gulf is closing between here and Europe and that is very important and then the money factor as well. I think those two are probably the biggest things between Europe and here because fan support here is wonderful now. You can go to any game basically here and see equivalent supporters to England to the Premier League and middle…
JIM: And there’s no risk of getting beaten up.
RYAN: Exactly, that’s right, exactly right, which is very (important).
JIM: When you say that, I often think that for young players, you can turn on the TV and you can see games from all over the world which, when the league started wasn’t the case, that is a huge difference and how do you combat that, I mean when I walk through town in Boston, or wherever I am in the States, I see kids with Arsenal shirts, I see kids with all kinds of shirts from all over but I don’t see that many kids with MLS shirts, how do you combat that?
RYAN: Well, I think that is the business aspect of the game. I think getting more games on ESPN, getting on to the network stations even. Unfortunately America is such an advertising culture that you have games like football, baseball and basketball that are so… (structured) around advertising and TV timeouts where that doesn’t happen in soccer. But once I think when the culture morphs to being able to handle 45 minutes at a time without commercials, or just seeing the billboards on the TV, once that becomes enough, I think then you’ll start seeing bigger support as well, selling more shirts, selling more scarves, things like that and I think really, that it is just a matter of time (and) maybe just a cultural shift as well.
JIM: You are a west coast person and I read in one of your bios somewhere that you did some acting. How did that come about?
RYAN: I was minoring in theater in college, so I got a chance to do some theater productions and a little bit of acting here and there; it was fun.
JIM: What sort of roles?
RYAN: Well, let’s see, what did I do? I played in some heady drama, I played a laptop, a talking laptop, think Beauty and the Beast meets Steve Jobs and Apple and then I was also an imaginary friend, a schizophrenic imaginary friend, so I played a lot of fun roles, it’s not much different than playing on the field. You know, you’ve got to have that alter ego on the field…
JIM: Yeah, the acting, the acting (can be) fabulous… When you went over to Ireland (and Europe) and you tried out for various teams and ended up playing for Saint Patrick’s and at the time the team was all full-time professionals, so one off the things U.S. players always talk about is when they go to Europe, or Latin America for that matter, they are competing (for places) against teammates whose livelihoods are totally on the line, a very different situation than college. There is an edge. Here, most of the U.S. players, perhaps yourself included, are middle class kids.
How do you deal with that cultural shift, thinking about being an actor?
RYAN: You basically just have to get into the mindset and it is easy when you are ingrained in that culture and you see how it is and you become that. All of a sudden you are thrust into this culture that is that, it is clawing, tooth and nail to get whatever you can out of the game and that is your livelihood. You’re next to these guys every day and you pick up a lot very quickly as long as you can…
JIM: Well, you have to be able to give it back, too…
RYAN: Right, exactly, exactly and you take it and fortunately, soccer is kind of a unifying force, everyone (there) does play and everyone knows how to play the game even if it is a little bit different in styles, but middle class? I think in America that is equivalent to the class that plays soccer in Europe. (At least) mentality-wise, obviously, I think that money is a little bit different of an issue but the mentality, you know, their parents are very supportive, just like ours are here. Their towns are very supportive, just like ours are here, it is different but similar.
JIM: So, there is an infrastructure behind it, in a way…
RYAN: Yes, there is, they’ve got the club structure in place, I’d say albeit not as professional as we’ve started them here but again, just different. All of them are connected to professional (teams) at some stage and I think that both could probably learn from one another in the way it works. I think it is definitely shifting over here, having the (MLS) academies and things like that. I think that is helping a lot and I think that it is also another aspect that will bring the kids of America wanting to play for MLS teams, they’ll grow up playing for a youth team of the Revolution, of the Galaxy, of whatever team it is.
JIM: Certainly, even pre-Diego kids are now talking about the fact that the Revs have development teams and so forth and so that does have a certain amount of clout. Thinking about the game itself for you, you came here with the idea of playing what position? What is your ideal place on the field?
RYAN: I seem to be finally playing on the outside, on the right, that is typically where I’ve been playing. I also played quite a bit of striker over in Ireland but I like playing (outside).
JIM: I notice you had a pretty good goal-scoring rate.
RYAN: I scored a few goals over there, which was nice but I like also to help out with the goals and to put crosses in, to get to the byline and swing them in, I tend to be most efficient when coming from the outside.
JIM: And thinking of the game itself here, on the field, what have you seen as the major difference between the way you were playing in Ireland and playing here?
RYAN: This is a very athletic league, the ball moves very fast and the people move very fast as well. I think that is one marked difference, the game in most of Europe and in Ireland as well, is very similar to English football where it is very technical. Every player on the pitch has an impeccable touch, although their athleticism might not be up to American standards. I think having other sports such as football, basketball and all these other very active and athlete-focused sports have helped soccer morph into that in America. I think (that the) European style only helps the American style because we are kind of born and bred athletes and if we can incorporate that pure technique that a lot of European countries (have) I think that will really help.
JIM: And does that technique come from playing as a kid, banging the ball off the wall and trapping it a thousand times, playing in the street, or can that technique be learned in an organized, academy, club kind of situation, do you think?
RYAN: I think it is a multitude of things, a lot of it is just watching soccer, like you say, in Europe it is on all the time. It is all that people talk about, so people are watching, watching, watching; constantly seeing things done the right way. And then also, like you said, playing in the streets, just playing. They’re not going to go out and throw the football around, they aren’t going to go out and play catch, it is going to be playing with the (soccer) ball and I think that is probably the biggest thing over there, that is what makes that little bit of a difference in technique.
JIM: Again, one of the complaints made about soccer here is that it is institutionalized at the very beginning, kids start playing for clubs and teams when they are tiny and that unless they happen to get a coach or sign up for a club that has a culture that respects the idea of playing with the ball for its’ own sake, they turn into automatons.
RYAN: Right, that is true.
JIM: How do you break that?
RYAN: It is going to be the immersion in soccer (culture). In one way, I think it is good having that because earlier on you weed out the people who don’t really want to be doing this for a living and when kids, or adolescents focus on (the game) and say this is what I want to do, then that is the time to kind of switch on and say what do I need to be doing to be different, to stand out in a crowd of, yeah, automatons. It’s watching, it’s going to professional games, seeing players, seeing what they do, it is doing anything that you can. It is definitely possible and, again, I think that we are moving swiftly towards that.
JIM: Finally, what has been the biggest surprise for you, coming back after having played four years in Europe?
RYAN: Definitely the support, you know the support has been fantastic everywhere. I mean we are getting average between 15 and 20,000 fans (wherever we play) and I would say when I left the average was easily under 10,000 easily. To see all the soccer specific stadiums, to see places like Portland and Vancouver coming into the league…
JIM: That game at Portland must have been amazing.
RYAN: It was fantastic, I mean I’ve played in big stadiums in Ireland and Germany and it was definitely as good (atmosphere), probably better, probably better and that is definitely the greatest part of coming back, just seeing America as a soccer nation, finally.