This past Saturday, for the first time in its 52-year history, Dodger Stadium, designed with baseball only in mind, played host to a pair of soccer matches, the first in its history. And I got a chance, for the first time, to see my favorite English soccer team, Everton, play in person for the first time in perhaps my favorite sporting venue in the world. [To get the full effect for the headline, say it to yourself in a Vin Scully voice.]
And how was it? Well, it was definitely different.
First of all, Everton lost the exhibition match, or to use soccer parlance, a friendly, to some small team from Spain called Real Madrid by a 2-1 score. I think some of their players are famous, especially the guy who wore #7. Some called him Ronaldo. Some called him Cristiano Ronaldo. Some called him things that I should not repeat here.
But I was there to see the "other" team: Everton. And while the crowd of about 40,000 was predominantly there to cheer on Real Madrid, I got the chance to be part of a smaller, but much more dedicated group of Everton fans. And why do I root for Everton? The answer is quintessentially 21st Century.
About three years ago, I realized that on Saturday mornings when I had to get up to go to work, about the only thing on TV early in the morning that wasn't children's programming was English Premier League soccer. And while I had always liked soccer (and have never understood why some people find that being a soccer fan is a zero sum game which means you have to stop enjoying other North American sports), I had never followed it closely enough to develop an allegiance to any one team.
However, I decided that I would enjoy my viewing more if I had a rooting interest. And who would I root for? I immediately ruled out rooting for any of the four wealthiest teams that dominate the league: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea. That would be no fun. So I decided to consult Twitter.
As it turns out, I had a fair number of Twitter followers who were Everton fans. And they were unrelated people from all parts of the country. They gave me their reasons. And I did some research. And I settled on Everton because they were a team that was: 1) decidedly underfunded and usually performed well above expectations, 2) had interesting players to watch and 3) also had some quality American talent.
Everton is the less well-known (on these shores) team from Liverpool (a city that I have never set foot in), whose more famous team is called Liverpool and is presently owned by the guy who owns most of Boston, John Henry. Everton's managing partner is an English theatrical producer named Bill Kenwright. John Henry could likely just buy all of Bill Kenwright's assets by just fishing out spare change from a sock drawer on his yacht. (Everton's stadium, Goodison Park, is at the opposite end of Stanley Park where Liverpool plays its home matches at Anfield.)
The hardest part in becoming a better Everton fan than others that I met is that I did not grow up immersed in the history of the team. I can tell you how the Dodgers did in 1908 (poorly), but I would have no clue how Everton fared in 1998. (Looking it up, I see they finished 14th in the 1998-99 season.) So I am trying to study up. I listen to the Followtonians podcast, where an American and Liverpudlian discuss the team. (I met the American voice, Eric Howell, on Saturday.)
Last season, Everton got off to a fast start, but ended up in sixth place, two places short of playing in the Champions League (European soccer's NCAA basketball tournament) and just one place short of playing in this year's Europa League (European soccer's NIT.) The team's longtime manager, David Moyes, left to take over England's behemoth, Manchester United, where he was the handpicked successor of Alex Ferguson. (Note this is the U.S. Your titles of nobility don't apply here, Fergy. And stop pointing at your watch all the time.) Roberto Martinez (whose last name is pronounced MAR-tin-nez by English announcers much to my annoyance) is the new manager and he has already promised Champions League play to the Everton ownership. In turn, the Everton owners would love Champions League play because it is a cash cow.
For most Americans, the most notable player on Everton is the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, who is the U.S. national team's #1 keeper. The Galaxy's Landon Donovan has played parts of two seasons for Everton while on loan from the Galaxy, although he did not do so last year and it's unclear if he will do it again.
The team's best players are always the target of the bigger teams in Europe and, for many years, Everton has done a fairly good job of selling off its players when they are overvalued and use that money to find 2-3 cheaper, but just as effective players. However, it is extraordinarily difficult for any have not in European soccer to break into the haves unless an Arab or Russian oil magnate throws down hundreds of millions of pounds. (As I am putting this together, Manchester United has offered Everton £30 million to acquire the contracts of midfielder Marouane Fellaini and left back Leighton Baines.)
Saturday was the first time that I got to meet many of the other U.S. based Everton fans that I've only interacted with on Twitter or Facebook. A local fan group called Southern California Everton held a pregame party at Mohawk Bend in Echo Park before the game.
The restaurant was packed with fans dressed in Everton gear, most of it in the team's traditional blue, but some also showed up in the alternate colors that the team has worn in the past few years, which has included white, black, yellow, and pink. (The pink uniforms only made a couple of appearances before the team thought better of it.)
There were fans from all over the U.S. who were taking in the rare opportunity to see Everton play in person. There were some expats in the crowd that I could detect from their Liverpudlian accents, but also people who were soccer fans and for reasons similar to mine, picked Everton as their team.
At Dodger Stadium, I spoke to a man from Nebraska named Mike. He said he had become an Everton fan while working as a church missionary and his coworkers played Fantasy Football (English variety) and they told him that he needed to adopt a complete team to play. And, like me, he was attracted to rooting for the underfunded team that punches above its weight.
Saturday's match at Dodger Stadium was a great experience. The players I've rooted for the past few years were no longer just figures on TV. They were there. I could tell that Fellaini was quite tall with a lot of hair. I was amazed at the strength and agility of Sylvain Distin (he's the one going up for a header in the photo above. Cristiano Ronaldo is in white and Leighton Baines is the guy shielding his eyes from the sun.)
The fans would break into songs (which I was woefully unprepared for in terms of joining in) during the match. I was able to join in when people starting singing the name of Kevin Mirallas to the strains of the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army," which has become a very popular song throughout European soccer. Some of the cheering would have required a seven-second delay, but all of it was in good fun. Nobody was there to cause trouble, although the Dodger Stadium ushers seemed a bit squeamish.
A football friendly has about 1% of the intensity of an actual Premier League match. The teams can substitute freely and the play is less physical as players don't wish to risk injury in an exhibition. However, it was a contest that both teams wanted to win as the winner would most likely go on to play in the final of the tournament (The International Champions Cup) that was ginned up for seven European teams to play pre-season matches in the U.S. (Real Madrid won the tournament with a win over Chelsea in Miami on Wednesday. Everton finished in sixth place after a loss to Valencia.)
Dodger Stadium is far from a perfect soccer stadium. The configuration the seats for baseball leave a lot of seats highly undesirable for soccer, such as the seats behind home plate. The outfield pavilions were great seats for the most part. I sat in the field level on the third base side. The loge section seemed to be unpopular, probably because of the price and the sight lines.
The Dodgers ground crew covered over the dirt of the infield with sod and tore down the pitcher's mound. It didn't appear that any players had trouble with the grass, even during the second match of the day (which I saw on TV) between Juventus of Turin and the Galaxy. (The Galaxy won that one 3-1 much to the surprise of a lot of people including Galaxy coach Bruce Arena.)
Someone commented on the Dodgers Instagram account that they were tampering with the "sacred grass" of Dodger Stadium, which is laughable on many levels. If you think about how the stadium got built, or how the stadium has been used for a variety of non-baseball activities including: boxing, motocross, Beatles concert (the first set of Merseysiders to appear at Dodger Stadium), Madonna concert, Papal Mass,
Seals & Croft in concert**, three tenors, and watching Billy Ashley trying to play left field.
The 2013-14 English Premier League season starts on August 17 and it should be easier for an Evertonian (as fans of the team call themselves) to follow them on TV. NBC won the exclusive rights to televise all the matches and they are allowing people to watch every match as it happens, instead of just the big teams or whatever else is left over.
Unfortunately for Everton, resident Dodgers billionaire owner, Mark Walter, was in Chicago watching the Dodgers play. He could have seen an English football team ripe for purchasing. He could try to start outspending John Henry on TWO continents. But, that pipe dream will have to wait.
Note that doesn't fit anywhere else: Dodger Stadium hosted four soccer teams before the last of the 30 MLB teams, Tampa Bay, ever played a game there. The Rays will be at Dodger Stadium for the first time on Friday.
** I mistakenly wrote that Seals & Croft played at Dodger Stadium. They did not. And that is one bad mistaken memory.