So I can't say I was shocked reading Pete Ratajczak’s March 28 blog on Center Line Soccer about his old friend, who “was at 5-2 vs LA” and been to to Salt Lake City for a World Cup qualifier, and yet hadn’t heard of Wondo. I will refer said "fan" to Grant Wahl’s article in Sports Illustrated that details how Wondo supplemented his MLS salary last season by coaching youth football. Wondo believes that his coaching efforts were rewarded with a new perspective on the strategy of the game that led to his most successful season to date – eighteen goals in twenty-eight appearances. After his off the bench hat-trick game against Chivas USA, as we meandered back to the car park, Wondo was signing autographs for and chatting with the fans, all the while being trailed back to the dressing room by a gaggle of his under-11 soccer protégés.
As a fan, it's stories like his that make me genuinely admire the sheer determination of the average MLS player to eke out a living at the game he loves. MLS is never going to be the same as EPL, La Liga or SerieA, but I for one really appreciate the differences. MLS games mean just as much but I feel much more connected to the Quakes and soccer than I ever did to football in England. Others have made arguments (I won't here) about the quality of the game in the US, and whether it is better than Europe or not. Even if you agree with that statement, there are so many positives to seeing any game live that Eurosnobs should bury their preconceptions and come out to Buck Shaw and enjoy a game. The things I enjoy most pretty much revolve around a connection to the game:
- Connection with the fans: Where else can you get twenty games of a professional sport for only $240; if my calculator's working properly that’s $12 a game (cheapest A's plans run $38 per game and Raiders $26). For a bit more outlay you will get you seats (albeit aluminum bleachers presently) right on the halfway line. I've settled in as firm friends with my season ticket buddies; we've travelled to away games and hung out in the off-season to watch EPL and World Cup games. We have a diverse vocabulary to comment on the referee's visual acuity - or lack thereof.
- Connection with the game: Even the largest HD screen and wraparound sound system can't reproduce the sights, sounds and smells of the game. There’s no amount of camera coverage that displays the entire formation on the field. I can see the plays build from farther back, and a player's turn of speed originating the runs down the wings that are often missed on TV. My seats are so close to the pitch that you can smell the grass cutting up after fifteen minutes, and you can hear the players call for the ball or warn 'man on'.
- Connection with my team: At EPL games the fans are completely separated from the players – a tinted window on the car (or team bus), a padlocked gate and a burly policemen on a trusty steed are placed between fans and players outside the ground. In contrast, the MLS’s leading scorer is readily accessible to fans for autographs and handshakes; one simply leans over the temporary railing as he makes his way from the dressing rooms, across the practice field and into the stadium. Last season I was able to welcome Kahri to the Quakes after his first outing last year and talk to Ramiro about how his injury was progressing.
- Connection with the league: Ironically the connection the fans have with the league is fueled by its rivalries. The California Clasico against the LA Galaxy has always been the highlight of the Earthquakes schedule. There's a nod to the NASL origins of the Quakes and Seattle Sounders, only in their third season in MLS, with the establishment of the Heritage Cup. This season with the arrival of Portland and Vancouver there’s a regular triangle of death in the Cascades. IMHO the most captivating games are to be found on the West coast.
Sure, I'll keep watching the EPL on TV with a steaming cup of strong coffee, and a slice or two of burnt toast on Saturday morning, but I'm always looking forward to my next Quakes game.