Paul Gerald is a self described soccer nut and is working on a book, An American’s Guide to Soccer in England, which he plans to have his book out in the summer of 2017. He has been on the SoccerNomad podcast to talk about his trips.
After our last chat he shared some similarities and differences between being a soccer fan in England and the United States.
I have been fortunate enough to see experiences in my soccer life of late: going to more than 35 games in England and seeing my beloved Portland Timbers win the MLS Cup in person.
The latter was a magical night at the end of a magical run and gave me a taste of Major League Soccer away days. The former is part of research for a book, a sort of travel and cultural guide to the English game
Here a couple of comparisons of the fan experience in each country:
In the US, many stadiums are on the edge of town and/or were originally built for American football. There are exceptions – all three Pacific Northwest stadiums, for example – but other places like Kansas City’s Sporting Park are between an outlet mall and a racetrack, and RFK Stadium in DC was original built as a multi sport facility in the 1960s and abandoned by the Redskins years ago, for good reason.
In England, most stadiums are smack in the middle of town. Chelsea, for example, are one of the great clubs in the world, with a cabinet full of trophies. But their stadium, the sparkling 42,000-seat Stamford Bridge, is about a two-minute walk from a tube station in a busy neighborhood in West London. The same is true for Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle, and many others.
Some of the newer grounds are rather stale and on the edge of town (Stoke and West Ham, for example), but I give the advantage here to England.
Here there is some similarity, except for MLS sides who play in giant stadiums made for the NFL. The biggest club stadium in England is Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, with about 75,000 seats. The next five biggest are between 50,000 and 60,000, and after No. 10 it’s all under 40,000. In the Premier League they get as small as 20,000 at Swansea City and 11,000 (!) at Bournemouth.
The average purpose-built MLS stadium is around 20,000. So we’ll call this one a draw.
The vast majority of seats in English stadiums are covered – as they need to be, since the season runs from August to May and at least half of that is rain with temps in the 30s and 40s. In the US, we have the sense to play in the summer and sit in the sun. Advantage MLS.
My Timbers have the league’s most heated rivalry with Seattle, which is “only” 170 miles away. For comparison, Liverpool and Everton are one mile from each other. Queens Park Rangers and Fulham, two bitter West London rivals, are three miles apart. You could walk to those two and Chelsea in a total of six miles. It goes on and on. Big advantage England.
By rule, but not always in practice, away fans are supposed to get 10% of tickets to an English match, and up to three times that for a Cup tie. This means that throughout the Premier League, and in many lower league games, there are generally thousands of away fans singing their guts out the whole game. The biggest I saw was 9,000 Sunderland fans at Manchester United.
Look what they did when they scored a late goal in that game.
At the vast majority of MLS games, the best that can be hoped for are pockets of away fans, and away goals are met with a weird, eerie silence. Advantage England.
Before games in England you get a lot of announcements and ads on the big screen – if the stadium has one, and most do. And there’s an on-field announcer whom everyone ignores. During the game? Nothing. They won’t even show a replay if it will piss anybody off. And I know of one club, Crystal Palace, that has a dance team.
In the US, you get some sponsorship messages here and there, but it’s much better than the nonsense at an NBA or NFL game. English people love that stuff, by the way; they think it’s like going to a circus. For soccer, though, we’ll call this one a draw.
Singing and Chanting
Near as I can tell, MLS culture is pretty much an adoption of English culture, all the way to the point of people wearing scarves to a game in 90-degree weather. There’s plenty of singing in both places, but from what I have seen, MLS severely lacks two things: spontaneity and player-specific songs. There are also very few opening game anthems in the US, which we need to work on.
Here’s 57,000 West Ham fans sing “Blowing Bubbles,” East London accent and all, at their new home stadium.
Slight advantage: England.
Eating and Drinking
My favorite thing to tell English people is that not only can we drink inside an American stadium, there are people walking around to sell you beer! They absolutely cannot believe this. Ever since about 1990, when they started cracking down on hooligan culture, it is against English law to consume alcohol while you can see a soccer pitch – even in a suite. They also have no concept of what tailgating is, but they think it sounds utterly amazing and can’t wait to get over here and try it out.
Big, big advantage to the USA here.
The biggest misconception about English fans is that they are all hooligans. In fact, in 35 or so games I’ve been to, I have felt uncomfortable exactly twice: When I wore my Fulham colors outside Sheffield’s Bramhall Lane after a tense draw (lesson learned) and the time I naively wore a red jacket to a game at Everton (bigger lesson learned).
Still, I give the advantage to the Yanks here. The level of obscenity and abuse (at their own team, most of the time) is really over the top at English grounds – one reason that almost all have a family-friendly area. In the US, except for maybe a few of the derbies, fans mix together well, and everybody really seems out to have a good time.
One big disadvantage to MLS, though: I cannot believe how many American fans talk during the game and get up to walk around. Neither of these happen during the game in England, except when people beat the rush to the beer stand before halftime. It is all about watching, and knowing, the game.
Taken as a whole, seeing soccer in England reminds me of going to college football games in the South when I was a kid: It was mostly local teams with lots of fans there, TV and in-game distraction didn’t get in the way, and the stadiums felt cozy and intense. The English are in the slow process of replacing their old grounds and losing some of that atmosphere, but for now, and for my money, there’s no better sporting experience in the world than heading down to an English ground for a Saturday afternoon kickoff, with scarves and songs flying. I hope to run into you there sometime.
Check out my website, EnglishSoccerGuide.com, and follow along on Facebook or Twitter.
Thanks for reading. For MLS and EPL fans, what have your experiences been? Let us know in the comments below.