Friday, April 24, 2009

Groundhopweekend in the Northwest (May 2009)

In most parts of the USA it takes a lot of driving to see one “soccer” game, let alone two in one weekend. This notwithstanding, I set out for a classic football weekend in the Northwest, which took me from the southwest of Oregon to the northeast of Washington (state), and back, through the northwest of Oregon. So, on Friday morning, just before 10.00, I jumped into my car, got a bagel and coffee at my favorite locals, and started my 781 km drive to Post Falls, Idaho, for my 19.00 game.

Spokane Spiders – Victoria Highlanders (01-05-2009)

Don’t ask me why, but the Spokane Spiders, from Spokane, Washington, play their games in Post Falls, ‘just’ across the border in Idaho (37 km). This despite the fact that: (1) Spokane is roughly ten times bigger than Post Falls (the metro area even 20 times); (2) Spokane is in a different state than Post Falls; (3) the Greyhound Park and Event Center, where they play in Post Falls, isn’t very special.

I parked on the huge and virtually empty parking lot in front of the ‘stadium’ and proceeded inside, where I bought a ticket for USD 8.00 (ca. EUR 6), which gave access to the whole ground, though it includes only one stand. After eating a hot dog that looked a bit like a meat stick (gehaktstaaf), at $2 a good deal, I left the canteen/covered stand to go outside and join the other ca. 250 fans to see the two teams and listen to two national anthems (the Highlanders are from Canada).

Spokane Spiders was founded in 2006 and plays in the USL Premier Development League (PDL), a kind of amateur-plus ‘league’ where teams can try to develop a (semi-)professional team. The owner of the team turned out to be the biggest cheerleader, roaming in front of the stand and firing on the ‘crowd’. As so often at (lower level) football games in the US, the fans were mostly families with a lot of young girls, few of them experts of the game. There was almost a gender balance in the stadium; in fact, the referee was female, while the linesmen were male. Unfortunately, there was also an announcer who commented throughout the game, mixing advertisements for sponsors with basic yet cheerful information: another corner/free/goal kick for your Spokane Spiders!

The level of play was very similar to that of the Seattle Wolves, another PDL team I saw a couple of weeks before. Most players were reasonably fit and fairly decently skilled… for lower level amateurs. None would have a short at the higher division amateur teams in the Netherlands, and some might have even struggled at my level. At the Spiders, the player-coach was clearly above the rest, but he was fairly slow and isolated. The Highlanders were better organized and had more of the game.

The visitors had a couple of half chances, including a shot in the 22nd minute that was saved by the goalie, followed by a corner kick that was badly missed by that same goalie, but not finished by the strikers. In the 35th minute the Highlanders got a soft penalty for pushing; a harsh penalty for a minor foul.

The visitors gladly accepted the gift and converted the penalty: 0-1. Shortly afterward they had another big chance, going alone at the goalie, but they failed. Hence, 0-1 was the half time score and no one seemed particularly upset (except for the owner, who nevertheless kept cheering on the fans). At half time the clearly enthusiastic announcer was allowed to introduce a new sponsor: Hooters, a restaurant chain famed for its legs rather than its wings. ;-)

As the sun had gone under and the evening was getting cold, more and more fans moved to the inside stand, where you could watch outdoor football in an indoor football setting. Moreover, you could escape the noise generated by one of the rental floodlights, which were running on their own (noisy) generators.

The second half brought a couple of half chances for the hosts, as the visitors were falling back deeper and deeper, hoping for a lucky counter. After an unsuccessful scrimmage in the 52nd minute the Highlanders goalie was forced to make a great safe at a close header in the 59th minute. This woke up the visitors, who created several good chances in the following fifteen minutes, before the Spiders could create some pressure again. While this all sounds stirring, the quality of play and the low pace made everything fairly unexciting. Eventually, even the owner wouldn’t find the spirit to cheer anymore. So, the Spokane Spiders started their 2009 season with a 0-1 defeat, which was deserved, given the slightly better play of the Highlanders.

Not hindered by much traffic I left the huge parking space to drive to Spokane, where I stayed the night. The next day I was up and about early again, as I had to drive most of the route back to see my Saturday game in Portland, Oregon, 566 km to the southwest of Spokane. The game started at 19.00, but I was to meet a fellow Dutchman a couple of hours earlier.

Portland Timbers – Carolina RailHawks (02-05-2009)

I parked just outside of the stadium around 17.00, and joined a tailgating party on a parking lot nearby. Tailgating parties are typically American phenomena, where people meet up in the huge parking lots before the stadiums, hours before the game, to have drinks and food (including your own barbecue). This particular party was organized by the Timbers Army, the loyal supporters of section 107 in the PGE Park, and was attended by some 50 people.

After spending over an hour at the party, where I had a great chat with an American of Dutch descent (such a shame he is an ajax supporter), I.M. and his girlfriend had arrived and I met them in front of the main entrance of PGE Park, the multipurpose stadium that seat 19,566 (mostly covered).

The PGE Park is first and foremost a baseball stadium, home of minor league Portland Beavers; hence the rectangular shape and synthetic turf. However, with the Portland Timbers joining the Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2011, it will become its home; if the city can find a place to build a new stadium for the Beavers. I.M. had bought a ticket for the behind-the-goal area, at USD 11 (ca. EUR 8), and so we joined the famous Timbers Army to get an unexpectedly pleasant and ‘real’ football atmosphere.

The game tonight was between two established teams of the USL First Division, which oddly enough had already played each other that Thursday, also in the PGE Park, with a 0-0 result. We started with the obligatory national anthem, only one this time as both teams were American, which the supporters ended with shouting “Timbers Army” (instead of “brave”). It was the start of 90 minutes of song and chants, many of them original and topical – one of my favorites: “We have swine flu, oink, oink, oink”. Still, it remains an odd thing to hear supporters shout against the opponents, while no away fans are present (it is 4.600 km from Cary, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon).

The Timbers fans reminded me of the German St. Pauli fans, an odd blend of alternatives with a big passion for football. Although there were still quite a lot of girls and women around, the vast majority of members of the Timbers Army are guys between 15 and 35, the usual suspects in European football stadiums.

To be honest, I devoted most of my time in the stadium enjoying the atmosphere, talking to I.M., plundering the Timbers fan shop, and appreciating a very decent game of football. I didn’t make many notes, so I refer to the official report online for details.

The first half was dominated by the Timbers, who created various chances while suffering only a few real counter attacks. The level of play was very acceptable, not much different from the Dutch equivalent (i.e. eerste divisie). Moreover, the stadium and crowd, officially 6,752, let alone the atmosphere, was better than I have seen at some Dutch eredivisie (First Division) games. The pressure of the Timbers paid off, as the hosts went into half time with a well-deserved 1-0 lead. As always, the home goal was followed by Timber Joey, the life mascot of the Timbers, cutting off a piece of wood with his chainsaw.

In the second half the RailHawks had the better of the game. Increasingly the Timbers started to make small mistakes and they looked increasingly tired. The pace of the game went down, but it was still very decent. Moreover, both sides created clear chances, but were unable to convert them to goals. In the 83rd minute, however, it was the Timbers who clinched the deal with a second goal of the evening: 2-0. This was also the final score.

After the game the players of Portland Timbers came to the side of the Timbers Army to thank them for their support. This was much deserved as they had truly been singing and chanting for the whole duration of the game. Timber Joey game the players the two pieces of wood he had cut off, which were then celebrated as if they were the FA Cup.

I guess it is clear to the reader by now, I am totally won over by the Portland Timbers and the Timbers Army. This was the 12th team I have seen in the US, including several in the MLS, but so far there has been no comparison in atmosphere and dedication of the fans. This might change, however, when I will visit the Seattle Sounders, the arch rivals of the Timbers, at the end of the month at Qwest Field.
Seattle Wolves – Seattle University (19-04-2009)

As only two of the four “professional” leagues in the US have started yet, and the distances between teams are phenomenal, it is not easy to find a game every weekend. Fortunately, the Seattle Wolves were playing a friendly against Seattle University in the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, a southern suburb of Seattle.

So, Sunday at 10.30 I headed off to my coffee shop for a big cup of black coffee to keep me awake on my 443 km drive up. Although I made good time, I still managed to arrive at the game late – as I made a short detour to the Red Mill Burgers in Seattle, which has phenomenal burgers and the best onion rings in the US. The Starfire Sports Complex is a multisports sports complex run by a non-profit organization. It took me some time to find the game I was looking for, as (1) there were various games on, (2) the number of supporters at the Wolves game was not much higher than at the other games; and (3) you didn’t need to pay to get in. They did, however, play at the pitch with the big stand.

There were roughly 80 spectators at the game, who seemed to be mostly friends of Wolves players or students at Seattle University. The atmosphere was summerly and not very different from when I used to play evening games with my friends in Belgium. Oddly enough, the Seattle Wolves are actually a “professional” team, as they joined the USL Premier Development League (PDL) this year, the unofficial Fourth Division of the USA. As I was told by one of the Wolves members, to become a member of the PDL you mainly need to apply and have a sizable amount of money (allegedly some $100.000, mostly for traveling expenses).

I arrived at the right pitch roughly 20 minutes late, and took a nice place in the sun, behind the benches of the Wolves. I was directly struck by the laid-back atmosphere around the pitch, where players were walking on and off, joking with each other and the players on the pitch. It was difficult to escape the exhibitionist substitute player, who was determined to show all 80 spectators his heavily tattooed body.

It is difficult to describe the level of play. At times, there was some nifty passing, particularly by some Wolves players. That said, the pace was slow, the spaces large, and the individual choices often poor. It reminded me of games of the first team of my amateur club back in the Netherlands, V.V.O. (from Velp), which played in one of the (four) amateur third divisions, roughly ranking as the fifteenth division nationally.

Overall the game was pleasant to watch, helped by the gorgeous weather, but lacked clear chances. In the 28th minute the Wolves were close, but the low shot went wide. Seattle University created no clear-cut chance, but did substitute lavishly – I later learned that they had already played another game in the morning. Somewhat surprisingly, the referee whistled for half time after only 40 minutes. Assuming it was 0-0, I soon found out that the Wolves had actually scored in the 18th minute, before I arrived, and that the real half time score was 1-0.

At half time both team just stayed around the pitch, another indicator of the amateuristic setting of the game (which also had its charm). I spent most of the second half behind the SU goal, enjoying conversations with a knowledgeable member of the Wolves and his friend. While chatting and enjoying the sun, I noticed some more nifty passing on the Wolves midfield, but also an even lower pace and even poorer tactical positioning. Most of the few attacks came from the hosts, but few were truly challenging.

Not totally surprising, Seattle University was able to equalize after ca. 60 minutes. Following a strong drive through the center, the midfielder shot low and hard in the corner. This woke up the Wolves, who started to push for the winner. Some five minutes later the Vinny Jones lookalike striker of the Wolves ‘controlled’ the ball with his face and coolly finished: 2-1. A couple minutes later the Wolves goalie pulled off an important safe, ensuring a final score of 2-1.

Although my companions seemed not to believe me, the game was worth the more than 10 hour drive that day (thank god I have a new car ;-). Admittedly, the fantastic weather helped too, but I also enjoyed the determination of the whole Seattle Wolves initiative and their grassroots approach. Although they are still far away from becoming a ‘real’ professional team, and will face stiff competition in the city from the Seattle Sounders, they do believe that the Northwest is a fertile breeding ground for high quality football in the US, and I tend to agree with them.
Vancouver Whitecaps – Charleston Battery (11-04-2009)

It has been a very long wait, but the football (“soccer”) season is finally starting in the US. The MLS started a couple of weeks ago and now the USL1, the Second Division, has kicked-off too. I decided to drive up to Vancouver, which is roughly 700 km from Eugene, to see a game of the oldest professional team in North America: the Vancouver Whitecaps. Founded in 1986 as the Vancouver 86ers, which dominated the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), it moved through the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), and A-League into the United Soccer League (USL), and changed its name to Whitecaps in 2001. It has been playing in the multifunctional Swangard Stadium, with a capacity of 5,288, in the suburb of Burnaby. As of 2011, the Whitecaps will play in the MLS and move to the BC Place Stadium (although they hope to move to the Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium, which so far only exists as a plan).

As I had driven almost a full day to get to Vancouver, I had taken no risk and bought a ticket online (through the almighty Ticketmaster). Overall, the costs for this cheapest ticket was 25 CAD (ca 17 euro), after all extra charges, quite hefty for this level and, what turned out, a very basic and uncomfortable seat. After parking in the area around the stadium, I walked to the stadium, fighting off unsuccessful scalpers (the game wasn’t sold-out), and picked up my ticket at the “will call” table outside of the stadium.

The pre-match program included a corny cover band, but I used my time sampling the good variety of snacks, including a decent gyros sandwich (7 CAD) and a freshly grilled hamburger (5 CAD). Topping it up with a small popcorn, I circled the pitch to find my seat, which turned out to be in a make-up stand under some kind of tent-structure. Still, it wasn’t much different from the “VIP section”. ;-)

While all sports games in the US are started with the singing of the US national anthem, this ‘international’ game obviously needed two national anthems: “Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada”. To my surprise, many spectators actually sang along with the Canadian anthem – something not even seen in the US!

After this compulsory display of patriotism it was finally time to kick-off the new USL1 season. The stadium was decently filled – the official tally was a somewhat unconvincing 5.037 – and I was amazed by how multicultural the audience was (I was sitting next to some Arabs, behind some Africans, and in front of some Asians, for example). Behind one of the goals was a small but determined section of “ultras” who created what they thought was a genuine football atmosphere. Not surprisingly, no away fan had made the 5.000 km trip from Charleston, South Carolina. ;-)

To be honest, the level of play was, at least initially, not that bad. Both teams played tactically intelligent and technically decent football, even though the pace of play and passing wasn’t very high. That said, both in quality of play and quantity of attendance the game could easily hold its own with second division games in countries like Belgium or Austria. While no player of the teams is well-known, there was one with a fantastic name: Bellisimo, the right-wing defender of the Whitecaps.

Although the game was of a decent quality, few chances were created on either side. It took fifteen minutes for the first excitement, a shot at the far post for the hosts. The Whitecaps dominated the first half hour, but this remained their only real threatening situation. At the same time, it rained cats and dogs, and I was happy to sit under the make-shift tent structure – still admiring the couple hundred fans who remained uncovered and singing. Much less pleasant was the guy a couple of seats next to me, who said “Come on Whites” every 30 seconds!

In the last ten minutes of the first half the visitors get better, and even start to pressure a little bit. They seem to have better skills, particularly in their counterattacks, but do not really create any clear chances. Hence, 0-0 at half time, which I kill by watching the little kids play a game at the half pitch.

The second half is played at a much lower pace and with similarly few clear chances. In the first 20 minutes the Charleston Battery created the best chances, including a short just wide and a weak header on the goalie.

After that the Whitecaps are able to put some pressure on the visitors, but except for some rebounds very little truly threatens their goalie. Even the chanting of “We are the South Side”, by the “ultras” behind the goal, cannot change the inevitable 0-0 final score.

To be honest, I had expected the start of the football season a little bit more exciting. While I do believe that the Pacific Northwest (PNW) is a natural habitat for football, Vancouver still has a long way to go before it can seriously compete in the MLS. That said, the multicultural appeal of the club will be vital in its future, given the huge immigrant community in the city. Moreover, the prospect of playing derbies against two other (new) MLS teams in the PNW, the Seattle Sounders (in MLS since 2009) and the Portland Timbers (who will join with the Whitecaps in 2011), as well as the move to a serious stadium, will probably help raise the numbers of both spectators and sponsors.