Phil West, author of “United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom” answers a few questions regarding the making of and inspiration behind the book, such as some personal experiences that played a role in the development of this one of a kind soccer book.
Q: What made you decide to combine your love for the game and your 25 years of professional writing experience to write your book, United States of Soccer?
Phil West: This book started with the idea for a different book altogether. I traveled around the U.S. in 2014 during the World Cup, watching matches with fans in a different city each day, with the intention of documenting that for a book. My agent approached The Overlook Press with the idea, and they’d been thinking about a soccer book they wanted to put out, but rather than something about one World Cup, they wanted a history of MLS since the league was about to turn 20. And I instantly said yes — it’s a league that a number of American soccer fans have just tuned into in recent years, and the league’s story is a story that transcends soccer. Soccer is one of the few spheres, in sports or in anything, where it’s not seen as a superpower. But it’s arguably the most global sport, and it’s a fascinating intersection of Americans who have come together to champion it.
Q: What was your writing process like and how much time have you dedicated to this project?
PW: I spent most of 2015 and part of 2016 doing research, reading numerous newspaper and online articles conducting interviews, and compiling that all into a history. A lot of the process was more collage than pure writing.
Q: Do you feel this book will only resonate with soccer fans?
PW: I certainly hope not! The book emphasizes how the founders of MLS and team owners have helped grow the audience, so there’s a story here about marketing, and the book also highlights supporters’ culture, so it’s definitely an exploration of how this brand of fandom grew and developed.
Q: Which interview that you conducted for this book are you most excited for readers to read?
PW: There’s not one interview in particular I can point to; so many people instrumental to MLS’s growth were receptive and spoke with candor. Commissioner Don Garber and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott are featured in the book, Miami Fusion owner Ken Horowitz was frank about the struggles his team had, Kevin Payne and Peter Wilt shared fascinating stories about the league’s first, challenging years, and the fans I included were very forthcoming. Also, I’m a huge fan of commentator Ray Hudson, who coached in MLS for a time, and he’s his usual colorful self.
Q: Which would you say are some of the most significant moments that influenced the rise in the MLS’ popularity here in the U.S.?
PW: A few of them are tied to World Cups — the ‘94 World Cup in the U.S. that effectively launched MLS, the 2002 World Cup in which the U.S.’s surprise run injected interest in a then-struggling MLS, and the 2014 World Cup, which helped a number of Americans become aware of supporters’ culture. There are also some obvious touchstones covered in the book: The arrival of David Beckham to the L.A. Galaxy, the three Cascadia teams coming into the league, and the creation of NYCFC (which involves a prominent and recently-successful English team, Manchester City, starting up an MLS franchise in partnership with the New York Yankees).
Q: The book explores the origins of a number of the MLS’ supporter groups. Are you a part of any of these?
PW: I’m not, actually. I’ve certainly tailgated and watched matches with the Dallas Beer Guardians, who root for FC Dallas, and the Texian Army and El Battalon, who root for the Houston Dynamo, but I honestly like every team in the league to some degree. I am a member of American Outlaws, though, which supports the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team, and joining them in 2013 accelerated my knowledge of and appreciation for supporters’ culture.
Q: Do you think the American soccer fandom will ever parallel to those of Europe or South America?
PW: Maybe not in numbers, but there are American soccer fans now who are just as passionate about soccer as people in Europe and South America who have had it in their DNA longer. It’s in a way, like indie rock fans in the ‘80s and early ‘90s were just as Nirvana was about to break. There’s potential for a lot of people to be on the cusp of getting it and tuning in. As American football games get into the four and five-hour mark, full of stops and starts and commercial breaks, soccer’s two-hour game times, split into two uninterrupted 45-minute halves, seem advantageous.
Q: Which soccer team(s) are you a supporter of?
PW: My Premier League team is Arsenal, my La Liga team is Atletico Madrid, and I’m honestly a fan of all MLS teams, though I did grow up in Seattle with the NASL version of the Sounders. The U.S. team, though, is my first love.
Q: Have you always been a fan of theirs or did this loyalty develop over the years?
PW: The Sounders came into my life in 1976, and I’ve kept an eye on soccer since, though it certainly has become more important to me in the last five years.
Q: Do you or have you ever played soccer? Or are you strictly a fan?
PW: I played (badly) as a child, with memories that include getting rained on and bee stings. I’ve also played the last few years in the Austin Men’s Soccer Association, though I’m currently on hiatus.
Q: What’s your opinion of our own Texas clubs? (Austin Aztex?, Houston Dynamo?, FC Dallas?, San Antonio Scorpions?)
PW: Actually, the Aztex are on what seem to be a permanent hiatus, and the Scorpions have morphed into the Spurs-owned San Antonio FC. FC Dallas has had a great year that could have been greater had Mauro Diaz not gotten injured right before the playoffs started. (Seattle just knocked them out in a two-leg series in which Dallas did not look itself.) Houston’s gone through a rough season; they just hired a new coach from RGVFC (the Rio Grande Valley’s USL team) who might be a difference maker. Both organizations are great to work with, though, and for fans who can get out to either stadium, I definitely encourage it.
Q: In your opinion, which MLS player is currently making a name for themselves in the league and that we should keep an eye out for?
PW: Saturday’s MLS Cup, which I highly recommend watching, features two of my favorite players in all of soccer: Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro and Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco. They’re both capable of instantly transforming matches when they get the ball. If you’re looking for Americans worth watching, Seattle has Jordan Morris, an exciting young player who has the potential to help anchor U.S. teams for the next decade, and Toronto has Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, who have been mainstays for the national team for years. (Altidore played out of his mind in this playoffs; he could be particularly fun to watch in the championship.)