Leagues Apart – MLS and LOI

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With Robbie Keane’s LA Galaxy crashing out just as the Major League Soccer playoffs got going, one of the League of Ireland’s most exciting teams in years have just wrapped up back to back Championships. While the American domestic post-season is in the throes of the MLS Cup push, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers et al, will have to wait four tedious football-less winter months until the new season starts for a chance to wrestle the title from Dundalk’s vice-like grip.

The club that knocked the Ireland skipper’s team out of contention for the MLS Cup have, in a few short years, become the shining light of American soccer followers and, by comparison, put Irish football fans in a pale shade. In eight years since forming as an MLS expansion franchise, Seattle Sounders in the Pacific North-West have established a genuine supporters culture and have just set a new MLS attendance record. An average gate of 44,247 ‘Rave Green’-clad fans attend the impressive Century Link field, the stadium they share with the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. These numbers would put the Sounders above many illustrious European footballing powerhouses and third overall in attendances in Ligue 1 and Serie A, fourth in La Liga and fifth in the Premier League. While the Seattle Sounders set the standard that other American soccer teams aspire to, in twenty years of existence, Major League Soccer has achieved what the League of Ireland could only dream of after 94 years.

Kevin Doyle’s Colorado Rapids are the lowest on the MLS attendance table with 15,657 on average attending the 19,680 capacity Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. In Ireland, competition with rugby and the GAA is blamed for low interest in the domestic game. However the Rapids ‘compete’ with the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Rockies and the Denver Broncos for Colorado sports fans’ attentions. The Sounders set their attendance record in the same stadium that saw the Seahawks march to two consecutive Superbowls. In a sports-mad country, the MLS is now one of the most attended leisure pursuits in the USA, recently overtaking Ice Hockey and ‘America’s favourite past time’ baseball. With so many major league sports vying for attention and a share of the market, the MLS continues its growth.

There is no denying that Major League Soccer has massive money behind it that dwarfs the League of Ireland. Orlando City, one of the newest additions to the league reportedly paid a $70 million expansion fee. And it would be unfair to compare the stadia in both nations. In this country, Cabinteely are the newest team to enter a league that since forming in 1921 has seen 34 teams go out of existence, including seven former champions of the competition. The growth of the English Premier League can be blamed for dwindling interest from Irish football fans in the domestic game and the demise of some clubs. But comparing the attitude of football fans in Ireland versus that of our American counterparts illustrates a lot about the appetite for domestic football at home and stateside.

The Sons of Ben are a Philadelphia Union fan group formed in frustration at their hometown being overlooked for an MLS expansion team and to convince MLS commissioner Don Garber to bring professional soccer to the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia is home to some of America’s most storied NFL, basketball, hockey and baseball teams including the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, the Flyers and the Phillies. Since 2008, it also boasts Philadelphia Union and an average 17,451 paying customers checked into the 18,500 capacity soccer-specific PPL Park in 2015.

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Perhaps a fairer comparison in terms of money and backing would be with the lower leagues in the States. The North American Soccer League is recognised as having Division 2 status in the American league system by U.S. Soccer. The Borough Boys are a similar fan group to the Sons of Ben, who did not want to make the journey to Harrison New Jersey to follow the New York Red Bulls. With the rebirth of the New York Cosmos and their entry into the NASL, the supporters had a team of their own to cheer. Detroit City FC who ply their trade in the fourth tier in the National Premier Soccer League, were formed in 2012 by a group of students and have since established a raucous fan culture led by a gathering known as the Northern Guard. They currently play in a high school stadium but recorded a record attendance of 3,884 when they played Michigan Stars in July of this year. Chattanooga FC, also of the NPSL, set a US amateur attendance record when a crowd of 18,227 watched them take on New York Cosmos B in the Championship game this year.

While soccer fans in America form supporters clubs for teams that don’t exist yet, in a bid to have a team set up in their city, apathetic Irish soccer fans fill planes leaving Dublin airport early Saturday mornings boarding flights to cities in the north of England to support teams in a foreign land. Other Irish fans get their football fix in bite-sized chunks from the comfort of their living room through Match of the Day and Super Sunday. American soccer fans might be labeled naive and routinely mocked in this country for being uneducated about the game, but the contrast with the likes of the Sons of Ben and the jaded Irish counterparts who wouldn’t deign to attend the “sub-standard” fare on show in Richmond Park, Oriel Park and Turners Cross etc. puts the growth of the two leagues in perspective. Last June, in a capital city rivalry over 100 years old, Bohemians FC hosted Ireland’s most successful club Shamrock Rovers in front of 3,385 fans in the home of Irish football Dalymount Park. Although it was one of the most exciting Dublin Derbies in years, it was played in a venue that once saw regular attendances of over 40,000.

The Rugby World Cup that has just finished in England saw massive traveling Irish support in full voice at games that did not even involve Ireland, and the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine saw the Green Army descend on Poznan and Gdansk in huge numbers. All this paints a picture of a sports-mad country to foreign media. The fans enjoy a reputation around the globe for travelling in large numbers but could the tag #bestsupportersintheworld be interchanged with #besteventjunkesintheworld?

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NYCFC, co-owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees came into being as the second team in the Big Apple to satisfy New Yorkers’ eagerness to have a team located within the five boroughs as opposed to across the Hudson River in New Jersey. In a different sport, Ireland’s answer to the Bronx Bombers can’t be bothered to field a Gaelic football team; the Kilkenny county board conveniently ignoring the Gaelic Athletic Association’s creed of promoting Gaelic games in favour of focusing entirely on keeping the hurlers on top of their game and wining All Ireland after All Ireland. Indeed the reverse is true in the kingdom of Kerry. Significant attention has been paid to Dublin hurling in the last few years which has seen the sport sky rocket in popularity in the home of the Gaelic football champions, showing up the Kilkenny powers that be, who would seem to accept mediocrity in one code and ignore it altogether in favour of another. It could be argued the same attitude exists in Abbotstown and FAI headquarters towards the League of Ireland. ‘If we ignore it maybe it will go away’ seems to pervade Irish bureaucracy and life in general. This mindset seeps down to the fan on the street. It’s entirely probable that New York City FC came into being from a marketing meeting plan designed to exploit the growing American soccer market by the two giant sporting organisations that own it. But it was once believed that soccer could never crack America and in their first full season playing at Yankee Stadium, NYCFC sold 14,000 season tickets before a ball was kicked. A fact that highlights the enthusiasm the American fans have for the game.

As Cork City and Dundalk get set to face off in the FAI Cup Final in front of a packed Aviva Stadium, the two best teams in the country will play to the type of crowd the players, fans and management of both clubs could only dream of week in, week out. Cork played host to good crowds at Turners Cross as they mounted a title challenge against the Lilywhites and Oriel Park saw large attendances watch Dundalk retain the championship but they would be the exception rather than the rule. A post colonial attachment to England has stunted the development of a true football identity in this country. The national league is ignored by the Football Association of Ireland in favour of the senior men and a team mostly developed by the English system. Snobbery from so-called football fans in Ireland manifests in an inferiority complex towards our own game and an estrangement with local football in favour of a hitching up with the Premier League. The enthusiasm of the fans in the United States is in stark contrast with this pretension. In this country we are much more likely to fill the pubs on a Sunday to watch the big Manchester derby than to attend a local one. League of Ireland clubs come and go with barely a whimper while football fans Stateside set up supporters’ groups to show how much they want a team in their city. Some may snigger at their naivety but American fan culture continues to shine while here most can only bask in the reflected glory of teams across the Irish Sea.

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