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Six-Pack Interview Series: Major League Soccer “Insider” Shawn Francis

Back at the end of the July the Free Beer Movement took flight to Houston to take in the Major League Soccer All-Star Game. While we were there we nearly had a meet up with an MLS VIP, but due to our schedules (well… his… that's why there's a “V” and an “I” in there) we didn't meet up.

But that didn't stop the man from getting in touch with us and writing one helluva article about the Movement on (which you may have heard of). Mainstream media baby!

This fine gentleman was kind enough to give us a few moments of his time and participate in our “FBM Six-Pack” Interview Series (a more efficient version of the “Starting 11” Interview Series we also feature).

Ladies and gentlemen…. Shawn Francis, head writer for MLS Insider and The Offsides Rules, a great blog that's a mash up of pop culture, American soccer, and occasional partial nudity.

We got inside the head of the “Insider”.

1) Major League Soccer launched their new website before the current season and hired you as their in-house blogger at MLS Insider. How's life at MLS HQ? What's the coolest thing you've been able to cover in your new gig? The worst?

Life at MLSHQ is funny. Some days I can't believe that my 3-4 year long quest to get a job there actually paid off but then some days it's just a job just like any other; as the saying goes “once you get a check for something, it's work no matter how much you love it. That's not a complaint, that's just reality for all of us who aren't independently wealthy, on public assistance or heir to a Greek shipping fortune.

What's the coolest thing I've been able to cover? At this point I would have to say it MLS Cup last year. To be given as close to all access as possible to the premier soccer event in America was pretty rad. There were so many random, unique moments that week in Seattle: seeing the drummer for Rancid humping RSL's gear into the locker room, standing directly behind Nick Rimando's goal when Donovan missed that PK and seeing John Harkes belt out Bon Jovi like only a Jersey guy could in a bar at 2 a.m. won't be forgotten or topped easily. But Toronto in November has the potential to be just as memorable.

The worst? Hmmm. Covering the SUM Cup during All Star week this year was actually not bad, it was just the oppressive humidity that was a total downer. The tournament was held at some soccer complex in the 'burbs south of Houston, so far south that it was in coastal Galveston County. Bear in mind that this was in July. It was so humid that after standing on the sidelines for 4.5 hours (there were 2 games to cover back to back) the pages of the paper on my clipboard were wet just from the moisture in the air, air which incidently was populated by hummingbird-sized mosquitoes. Oh and the first thing you saw when you got out of the car in the parking lot of the facility was a sign that read “Beware of Snakes.” Good times.

2) You made your mark on the American soccer Internet world at the writer for The Offside Rules, focusing on the culture, people, and personalities that surround soccer in America. What makes this side/face of the American soccer world so interesting? How much more rewarding is covering this angle than the statistics and game action?

You need to be reading this.

TOR started out as my bar stool. If I were a baseball fan in NY I could walk into any bar in Manhattan and say to the guy next to me “What the hell is going on with the Mets? They are horrible!” If I tried that with the then-MetroStars I would have be presumed to be one of the crazy guys that stand out front of the Port Authority preaching about Lord knows what. I lurked around the Bigsoccer and Metrofanatic boards a lot but I never posted too much because it was often argumentative for my tastes. So I decided to create my own space to talk soccer, specifically more about the lifestyle and off-the-field aspects because no one else was touching it at the time. And stats and analysis bore me very quickly, not my idea of fun.

My view of sports and blogging is differs from a lot of people's take. I look at sports as entertainment just like music, movies, TV etc and all of those things focus more on the celebrity aspect more than the numbers angle. Have you ever seen a music blog declare Arcade Fire the Band of the Year based on record sales, merch sales and ticket sales? Hell to the no. But in sports that seems to be the norm and that should definitely be the bread and butter but the other stuff is actually fun (to me at least) and that's why I follwo sports, to enjoy myself. Besides, I'm horrible at math.

The weird thing about TOR is that people who discover it and start following often don't get that it's just my personal playpen and not the news. It's not CNN; I don't claim to be a journalist, I'm a guy who likes soccer and needs to talk about it more than I get the chance to in the real world so I ramble about it on Blogspot. It's not the Paris Review; it's not meant to be that serious for the most part. And it's certainly not a commercial endeavor; I've run two ads in 4 years for friends' businesses (Bumpy Pitch; as a mitzvah. I've never made a dime from it. For the most part I'm just trying to have a laugh.

Having said that it's been really cool to make so many friends via TOR. Those who get it, get it. But I have to admit there were points where I didn't get it and have heard it from the readers. I've always kept it really personal and unfortunately I've been guilty of letting the worst of me out on occasion; some things that I thought were funny or worth airing out in public just weren't. For the last few years I've been trying to not say anything that I wouldn't say to anyone's face, not because of any self-appointed journalistic ethics but more or less because even though I like to make immature jokes I'm still an adult on some level. But I sometimes miss the mark on that sadly.

I guess that was kind of a serious answer for someone who just said he doesn't want to be serious.

3) With competition from all-corners of the globe (the English Premier League, South America, J-League!, etc) for the attention of a soccer fan in the United States what's the best case you can make for American soccer and Major League Soccer?

The best case is this: it's ours. Would you rather be a in long-distance relationship with a super hot chick but you only get make out once a year and you have to get up at 7am every Saturday to call her or would you rather be married to a good looking local chick and have a real, honest-to-God daily relationship with her? For me there is no competition.


They said goodbye once already….

4) New York Cosmos? What's their deal? Are we really going to see this zombie team make it back to top tier soccer in the United States? What's the impact for soccer in the US if this is the real thing?

From what I gather the New York Cosmos is 1) a logo, 2) a youth academy, 3) a memory. I think they blew their wad early by bringing out Pele, Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto to say “the Cosmos is back” for what, a youth program? Kind of a waste. Personally, I think the only way that you get people excited about the Cosmos name again is if that it is playing in MLS in the 5 boroughs and the only way that happens is if the Wilpons (who own the Mets) get involved. No one has the land and the clout to get a stadium built in less than 5-8 years. Let's put it this way: the Jets couldn't get a stadium built in Manhattan and they are the NFL. The Nets took 8 years to break ground on their new arena in Brooklyn and they are the NBA with Ratner, one of the most juiced people in NYC real estate, as an owner alongside pop icon Jay-Z. Do you think a soccer team will get the breaks that the NFL, NBA, Ratner and Jay-Z can't? I don't but if Wilpon is in you don't need as many breaks because he already has the land right next to CitiField.

I'd love to see them as the second NY team, but it's not going to happen quickly. But who knows, maybe the powers that be at MLS have an ace up their sleeve provided the group that owns the Cosmos name has the cash.

5) How do you feel about being the bridge between soccer and cool? That may seem a bridge too far from your modest perspective, but there aren't a lot of soccer sites that can go from “A Tribe Called West” (cool) to Preki bobble-heads (nerdy) to River Coumo (cool, again) to Star War-Red Bulls connections (nerdy). Given that soccer fans are usually the equivalent of sci fi convention attendees this injects some must needed “cred” to our fandom.

Well thanks for thinking I'm still cool. I'm 34 now, married with 2 kids, go to church on Sunday and I am too fat for skinny jeans so I often feel that I've lost the cool. I guess it goes back to TOR being personal; I write like I speak –poor grammar, swears and all– and write about the same things I talk about to the other ESC guys at the tailgate and it's not just soccer. Just like anyone else I like Star Wars, girls, music, clothes etc. It's not like some grand plot, it's just my normal interests in print as opposed to a verbal conversation. Make no mistake though, I am as geeky as anyone else.

But we need to inject “pop” into American Soccer. With the NFL, NBA, MLB we don't have to make pop cultural connections because those guys are part of the entertainment landscape in a way that most soccer players aren't in this country. My feeling is that is pop culture isn't going to come to us, we better start reaching out toward it. And there are other blogs that are doing their thing in a way that's more “lifestyle” driven and less hardcore stats; analysis; The Original Winger and The Third Kit are great examples of that.

6) Predictions for the growth of soccer in the U.S.? Where is this thing headed? Where will it settle in the American sports psyche?

Where is it headed? Canada it seems with Vancouver and Montreal joining TFC in the league soon.

The thing I find interesting is that even within the single-entity system you can kind of see haves and have-not emerging among the clubs. They may not be able to fight too much amongst each other for players as far as wage-wars go but I think it's going to be all about what a club can offer a player aside from money. “Can you offer me big crowds like Seattle and Toronto?” “Will I play on grass with your team?” “Can you put me in a soccer-specific stadium?” “Does your team feature any DP's?” “Will I be treated as a pro athlete with all of the perks that entails in your market?” These are questions that I can see players; their agents start asking and things that clubs are going to start touting. With that in mind I think players are going to want to gravitate toward the Torontos, Seattles, LAs and New Yorks while it's going to get harder for places who might have small crowds (Colorado), tight pockets (New England) or bad stadium situations (D.C.).

Do you think these pricks could
give us a couple of minutes on their show?

As far as what the nation thinks, I think times are changing for sure but it's still going to be a while before our game is water cooler talk outside of the World Cup. It does seem like we get closer and closer every year. I think the key for the national team is to reach the round of 8 in the World Cup; if we hit that mark again with the money ESPN; Nike are now investing in covering the Yanks and the attention that this year's World Cup generated I think we'll see even more people outside of soccer take an interest.

But the key I think is raising the interest in the domestic league. If all of the existing soccer fans in America, the ones who get up at 7am to watch Chelsea but can't be bothered to drive 17 miles to see Chivas USA, would become MLS fans it would not only change the league from a business standpoint but it would change the way the public and non-soccer media view the game. If we had a domestic league full of Toronto-sized crowds it would be very hard for SportsCenter to ignore it.

7) Can you get us five minutes with Frankie Hejduk? I think we've got a pretty good case for him to join us as our spokesperson.

Ha! He would be great wouldn't he? Your best bet is to try and catch him in the Bob Marley section of your local bookstore; he'll talk to anyone there apparently.

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Tags: Major League Soccer, Six-Pack Interview Series

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