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A view of the MLS from across the pond: A Q&A with Matt Wagg

Matt, welcome to the Chicago Fire.  Fire Till We Die!
Matt, welcome to the Chicago Fire. Fire Till We Die!

Being a Fire fan is rewarding in countless ways. One of my favorite things is when I get to interact/meet other Fire fans. That is part of the fun of following any sport or team- the camaraderie you feel, especially when talking or hanging out with other fans. It feels even more special when it comes to the Fire, since there is a strong feeling of family and community when it comes to the Men in Red no matter who and where you are. When the situation involves a fan new to the team, it adds an extra element of fun in helping that person or persons learn about the history and culture of the team along with supporting the team together throughout the season.

I don't remember exactly when it was last season, but I found out about a supporters group of MLS fans in the UK. I started reading their website regularly, and I decided to get in touch with them earlier this year. I was intrigued by this MLS UK group because it's usually the other way around here in the US. We are used to people paying attention here in the US to European soccer, but most people don't even think about European citizens paying attention to the MLS. A large part of this is due to the fact the league is rather young still and growing it here in the US is the main priority. Despite this, it's nice to know that people in the UK, as well as other countries in the world, are following the MLS and supporting the Chicago Fire.

This year, their site has an all new look, and there is a writer for each and every team. That way those that only care to read stories in relation to their team can do so. The writer for the Fire is new to the team and trying to learn all he can about the club he has chosen to call his own. Follow me after the break for a couple of other things and the Q&A that Matt and I have collaborated on...

In talking about working together, we decided upon a Q&A exchange for the first articles that we would work on together. Since Matt is new to the Fire, his questions for me were all Fire related in an attempt to learn more about the club and its players. My questions to him focused more on how the MLS is viewed in England in general. And of course there are some Fire related questions thrown in for good measure. It is a unique perspective to be able to get input from someone that is used to a totally different soccer paradigm than we are used to here in the US. I will be sure to post a link when he gets my answers to his questions up on the MLS UK website in case anyone wants to read them too.

You can check out the MLS UK website at I also encourage you to follow Matt on Twitter at: @matt_wagg. I know it will be fun talking to him about all things Fire this year and cheering the team on to success together. Please give Matt a warm welcome to the Fire family. Oh yeah, he's also a huge fan of the city of Chicago to top it all off! We hope to collaborate again as the season goes on with other articles about the Fire. Without further ado, here are his answers to my questions. Enjoy!

How did you become interested in the MLS and covering the Fire for MLS_UK?

I first heard of MLS_UK through a friend at university who was already writing for a team. They were short of contributors at the time, and as I was soon to complete a degree in journalism I decided that pitching in for the site could add another string to my bow. I started at the beginning of a transitional phase for MLS_UK, but began writing for a free club, DC United. Once Dan and Jon took over running the site and were looking for writers for the new season, I jumped ship to write for Chicago Fire.

What made you pick the Chicago Fire over DC United?

Despite initially getting familiar with the DC setup, the major swaying point for me came when I made my first ever trip across the pond back in October. A friend and I bought tickets to Riotfest punk festival, which was to be held at the Congress Theatre in Chicago, and so we stayed in the city for a week to see the shows and take in the sights.

My first and only experience of the US came that week, and were entirely Chicago based. I was blown away, not only by the sheer size of the city, (London just doesn’t compare) but also the people we met during the week, and the overall feel of the place.

Since coming back to the UK I’ve been desperate to revisit the city, despite there being so much of the US I’ve yet to visit.

Once Dan approached me in February to continue my MLS contributions, there was only one team that I felt compelled to write about, and dedicate myself to supporting. No other team from any other city would cut it!

Can you describe how MLS is viewed in England in general?

My UK team is Manchester United, who in the past few years have spent a fair amount of time in the States for pre-season tours. For this reason, I myself have been familiar with a lot of the MLS teams that United have faced. The general opinion of the MLS in the UK however, is sadly still fairly poor. People assume that because there are so many other sports at the forefront of American tastes, that MLS is something of an afterthought.

The success of US players, particularly goalkeepers, in the English Premier League has done little to improve opinions of US soccer, however very few will disagree that players such as Kasey Keller, Brad Freidel and more recently Tim Howard, have been excellent stoppers for their respective English clubs. Further exposure has come thanks to successful spells from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, to name two more, which will only benefit MLS’ reputation.

Given the fact that England has many more levels of soccer than the US, and the structure is vastly different, do you or other MLS followers you know find it hard to learn how the MLS works/is structured?

English football is based around a number of tiered leagues, with promotion to the league above being the aim for every team below the Premiership. Whilst that doesn’t happen in MLS soccer, I’m of the opinion that the split-tier league is still pretty easy to get your head round. The draft and transfer system held for many sports in the US however, seems a lot more complicated to outsiders, and personally I find this harder to get my head around than the league system!

It seems that English teams, particularly in the top 2-3 levels of competition, are beginning to pay attention to young talent in the MLS and have begun to actively scout the league. Would you describe this as an accurate assessment? Do you think this trend will continue in the future?

European teams have been scouting South American teams for a few years now, so it stands to reason that as the MLS teams get stronger, they will start to gather interest from foreign clubs. This of course is excellent news, both complimenting the quality of the players in the US, but also granting opportunities for American players to play for the world’s biggest clubs. One downside to increased scouting interest however, comes from the limitations of MLS transfer rules, compared to that of the rest of the world. If European teams can spend unlimited amounts of money on players and wages, then the MLS surely will struggle to compete on the global stage, as teams are allowed a set number of ‘star picks’ and a strict wage budget… In my opinion, some adaptation may have to occur from both sides to stop MLS being taken advantage of.

What would you say are some of the things that you feel the MLS does well at?

That said, I do admire the strict transfer and wage restrictions in the MLS. Soccer is a sport that has proven so popular in Europe that companies are spending billions of Pounds/Euros in a few seasons, in an attempt to bring in the right players and staff to their clubs. Whilst this can increase the quality of football seen in a division, it’s not good for the economy of the sport, when teams who don’t have the money to spend are struggling to even pay their squad a basic wage. Portsmouth being one such team in the English headlines at the moment. With the current system in place, there have been no absolute stand-out teams MLS, and squads have had to make it on their own hard-work and merit, and that will certainly increase the quality of soccer players brought through at the grass-roots level.

What would you say are some of the things that you feel the MLS needs to change/improve upon?

As I’ve already said, whilst I like the transfer system, as the MLS continues to grow, I think they may have to alter the rules to stop the league turning into a ‘feeder league’ for top European teams.

Other than that, I definitely think that the MLS needs to make itself more readily available to UK audiences. NFL and NHL matches are available online through subscription services worldwide, yet currently the MLS Matchday Live service is only available over the pond. That’s very disappointing and I think, slightly short-sited by the MLS marketing people.

Do you see a serious MLS/Fire following developing in England at some point in the future as the league grows? Do you think MLS/Fire games will begin to be televised in England at some point in time just like English soccer matches are now televised widely in the USA?

At the turn of the century, Italian league football was quite popular in the UK and could be found most weekends on certain channels. More recently, Spanish football has proven very popular thanks to an undeniably attractive style of play and increased European Champions League exposure. I think that as MLS continues to expand it’s audiences in the US, then word will spread as to it’s entertainment value and we will begin to see more interest here in the UK.

Relatively, MLS is still in it’s early stages, so the more teams we see coming across for pre-season tours, more players loaned out during the MLS off-season (like Beckham and Henry have done previously) as well as continuing impressive International team performances, then the satellite broadcasters over here, SkySports and ESPN, will have no choice but to pay attention to the quality of the soccer on offer.

Do you plan on making the trek to Toyota Park someday to see a home Fire match live?

I still have so much of the States to go and experience, but I would still take a trip back to Chicago over visiting any other city. It’s definitely a place I’m going to go back to, and trip to Toyota Park is definitely going to happen!

What was your favo(u)rite part of Chicago when you visited the city recently?

In the seven days I spent in Chicago, I saw so many cool places it’s really hard to pick a firm favourite. We saw a lot of the usual ‘touristy’ places like The Bean in Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo, Congress Theatre, Wrigley Field and The United Center (sadly not on matchdays), as well as just wandering the streets downtown. Even the streets seem so different compared to in English cities. We don’t have ‘city blocks’ in the UK so everything seemed like a novelty. We’re used to seeing US cityscapes in movies, so to be there is quite a surreal experience! The tattoo places and record stores were great to visit too. Plus the fact that is was a sunny 86F made the trip all the more memorable! Next time I visit though, it would be great to see the city from a local’s point of view. I’m sure there are loads of things that we missed out on, or hadn’t heard about.

Can you name one or two things you are most looking forward to as a Chicago Fire fan?

I’m looking forward to continuing my affiliation with a great city, through a sport that I enjoy. Chicago will always be my first American city and it’s great getting involved with a team like Fire, getting to know some of the fans and being included as a true Fire supporter. This isn’t the sort of connection you get just by picking a team from a hat, but the fact that I’ve experienced even a small amount of Chicago makes supporting Fire all the more special.

I look forward to getting to know more Fire fans, learning more about the club and the city, and hope to encourage the support of CF here in the UK, to whoever will listen to me!

**Update: My answers to his questions just went up on the MLS UK website. Click here if you would like to take a look!