The start of a new season? Football never comes to a complete end, with the World Cup overlapping the start of the European Champions League, and various summer leagues overlapping the traditional winter leagues at both ends. In Britain, we tend to define July 1st as the first possible date – professional teams tend to start their pre-season training on this date, and the FA have a moratorium against pre-season games being played in June. For me, there has always been a short break between seasons, except back in 1996. In that season, I was working in Indonesia and Malaysia and with both seasons in operation, I was seeing a game most weekends. Then I chose to start my 1996-7 season on 20 July, on 6 days after the last game of 1995-6. The reasoning was that for six weeks I had been in Indonesia, whereas at least I crossed the borders to start again in Malaysia. This season, the opportunity was there for an early start, and while if I had been at the World Cup it would still have been part of the old season, my first match in the USA was after a two week break.
The journey was straight forward, a direct flight from Heathrow to Chicago. It did take almost two hours from arriving at O’Hare airport, to leaving in a hire car – most of the delay was waiting for the passport check. I then drove directly to Kalamazoo using the freeways, (and a toll road near Chicago). I was just a few minutes too late in arriving to see any of the day’s World Cup games. I had pre-booked a motel on the way in towards the town. The place was a little bit run down, but perfectly adequate for my needs. A current US rule is that you state where you are staying, although it is accepted this is only for the first night. Apparently it is advisable to actually make a booking. British Citizens do not need a visa, but must fill in an on-line form before travelling. Hard luck if you do not have internet access!!
Everyone knows that the MLS is the top division of the USA; there are now 16 franchises – but there is also a thriving set up below this. There is no direct promotion and relegation at any of the higher levels in the country. The second level was run by the United Soccer Leagues, under the title USL, Division One –but after a dispute (more in a later blog), it is for one season only being directly operated by the United States Soccer Federation, under the title USSF, Division Two! The USL still had a Division 2, although with only six teams, it is not on my schedule for this trip, while the fourth level is the USL’s Premier Development League, or PDL. This is one of the most wide spread soccer competitions in the USA, (and also in Canada, and Bermuda), with the league divided into four Conferences, and each Conference divided into two divisions. There are no inter divisional or inter conference games, with every team playing an 18 game regular season. Not all of the divisions have nine teams, so some match ups come more than twice, and special arrangements apply to Bermuda, (unfortunately, not playing at home while I am out, so no chance of my picking them up this time).
Kalamazoo is typical of what I expect in small American cities. Not much appears to be going on when I pass through the downtown area. There are not many people around, but not many things to detain them either. On the road between the centre and the freeway, there is a series of low rise retail outlets. Easy on the car, hard on the foot. The Loy Norrix High school is well to the outskirts of the town. It is a sizable school, but I am not certain it is term time – certainly no people around when I passed early in the afternoon. It has two sports fields with stands, floodlights and public address systems, which I think is a concept alien to most of Europe. The signs outside proclaim “Home of the Knights” under the name of the school. The Knights may to be a name given to any team attached to the school, as signs suggest they run both American and Association Football teams under the name. It is the American version that has the bigger stadium. The team run in the PDL goes under the name of Kalamazoo Outrage, for reasons that are not clear. For Soccer, there is a field with a metalled seating area providing about ten rows of seating on one side. No numbered seats, but I would say it can hold 300. Spectators can also stand on this side, (not that many did), but there is no general access to the other sides of the pitch. Opposite the stand are two shelters for the team benches, and an announcer’s box. Above the box is a platform that could be used for filming, but with no cameras in place, it was actually being used by the referee’s assessor – and in the second half, by me as well. There was no programme, but Outrage gave away eight sheets of A4 paper stapled together, which appears to run as a season programme for both men’s and women’s teams, (they have a team in the USL W-League, which I think is the highest ranked ladies team in the nation). For comparison with Britain, it should be pointed out that this is not a college ground, but a school ground – so they various Knights teams are all of under 18 players, and for this they have a soccer pitch with the described stand, scoreboard and PA, while the American Football field can seat at least 2000 in two stands, (no seats under cover, though).
Kalamazoo. The Season starts Here.
The visitors were Forest City London, from the Canadian City of London, Ontario – about a three or four hour drive away. There are quite a few Canadian teams at this level of the USA leagues, as well as Toronto in the MLS, and two teams (Montreal and Vancouver) at the second level – both of which will join the MLS in the next two years. My schedule will not allow me to see a PDL game in Canada, but I will get to a game in the Canadian Soccer League on Friday. This may well be another London team, although if I feel up to the long drive afterward, I could change and pick up a match closer to Toronto.
I counted the crowd around 65 in Kalamazoo, although the official crowd figure was 100. My guess is that this was an estimate, as quite a few of those in attendance did not appear to pay the US$3 entrance fee, (which was only for those 16 and over anyway). Two things struck me about the crowd – one was that I was in a minority of the male viewers by wearing trousers rather than shorts, and secondly the crowd was more than 50% female, with an average age I would put somewhere close to 18. I like this as it gives me something to look at if the football is not up to much, but sadly it is not a two way street. None of these young ladies were giving me a second glance.
Showing the stand. The dressing rooms are back in the school building, so players stay on the pitch at half time, while the block immediately behind the stand includes a concession which sells drinks, sweets, “brats” and burgers. The Brats were an American version of Bratwurst, a standard fried sausage in a hot dog bun.
The game started up quite open, with both teams having early chances. The home side set themselves up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, which really did not suit them – the central midfielder in front of the defence was clearly not up to the job, while the loan striker was a useful player, but needed better support. The wingers did push up, but no one moved forward from the middle of the field. FC London played a conventional 4-4-2, again with good overlapping from the wingers, but also support from the midfielders pushing forward. There are two special rules for the PDL compared to general European Football. Teams name a squad of 18, from a roster that is limited to 26 players. Only 8 of the 26 can be over the age of 23, and also no more than 8 can be foreigners, but there is nothing to stop a team having 8 foreign older players and play them all as starters. Outrage’s oldest player was in fact only 25, and he was not in the 16 man squad named for the match – two of the players are given as foreigners by the wonderful people at Wikipedia, Christoph Kaesler is German, while former Brodworth Welfare player Chris Darby is English. Both ended up being unplayed substitutes, although the rules allow for up to six substitutions, (but not rolling subs, no return to the field). Forest City had nine players listed by Wikipedia as neither Canadian or from the USA, so I guess at least one is actually now a citizen, probably in Canada. Three of the players will have their 23 birthday later this year, and one(not in the 18 named for the game) was 31 years old, but again the players named were overwhelmingly younger.
Kalamazoo had a good start, going ahead after 11 minutes when the forward, Jackson crossed for a Colaizzi to come in from the wing and score. Jackson himself should have scored earlier. The Outrage had recently won for the first team of the season, picking themselves off the bottom of the table. The visitors however, are hopeful of a top two place, which allows them into the end of season play-offs, and they soon showed themselves to be the better team. They should have equalised after a foolish hand ball in the 18th minute, but McGreal had his penalty saved.
Wearing 00, Outrage keeper Jeremy Clark dives to save Alan McGreal’s penalty. Clark was injured on 40 minutes, and the substitute goalkeeper, Keenan Flynn wore number 0.
The let off for Kalamazo Outrage was short lived, as with Clark stranded on the near post, Carl Haworth heads in the 25th minute equaliser.
Even before Forest City had equalised, I thought they were well in command of the match, and it was no surprise that former Blackburn Rovers youngster put them ahead before half time. Haworth added another early in the second period, and then Luke Holmes (formerly of Bury reserves) came off the bench and added to more to record a final score of 5-1. Forest City played all six of their permitted substitutions in the second half, leaving only their second choice goalkeeper on the bench. Outrage played only the standard three replacements, with the goalkeeper changing in the first half, and two more changes after the break. They never changed their formation, and left the player who appeared to be the poorest on the field on. I spent the second half with the referee’s assessor, who was very critical of the team for this, but I doubt if there was any chance the score could be different. The result pushed Outrage back to the bottom of the table, while Forest City are two points behind the leaders, with two games in hand.
The referee’s assessor was quite clear about the main issue being discussed in football circles here. That is England’s disallowed goal against Germany. Opinion is divided as to whether it changed the end result, (obviously it could, but no one can say that Germany were not overall the better team). There is an overall opinion in favour of using replays or goal line technology at least for goal line decisions. I think that should FIFA require a new trial period, then an American League such as the MLS may well be willing to be used for this purpose. Whether or not replays should also be used for off sides is more of a question. I myself would like to see it trialled. After all, there are disputed off sides in every game, while many teams can go a whole season without a goal line incident.
As it is not famous for its football, Kalamazoo is well known because Glenn Miller claimed to have a girl here back in 1934. She must be quite old by now! Its best claim to fame is as a brew town, so after the game I went into the town to sample some of the Bell’s breweries best brews. (Bells is a sponsor of the football club). Not a bad way to end a day, which finished over 24 hours after I left home.