- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Chevy Chase-based writer Ian Plenderleith has written about soccer in England, Germany, Switzerland and the United States for Britain’s popular fan magazine, When Saturday Comes. During his travels, Plenderleith has become a devoted fan of numerous clubs, including his hometown team of Lincoln City in England, German club Eintracht Frankfurt, Swiss team F.C. Zurich and now D.C. United. His witty, insightful and often blunt analysis is refreshing and astute.

“Plenderleith brings a supporter’s perspective to a variety of tangents,” London’s Sunday Times said last month in a glowing review of his book of soccer fiction, “For Whom the Ball Rolls” (Available at www.ianplenderleith.net.)

I sat down with Plenderleith to get his take on the state of soccer in the United States.

Q: What do you think of the quality of Major League Soccer?

A: Some of the good teams in MLS are as good as some of the mediocre Premier League teams in England and maybe the better teams in the First Division. I could compare MLS favorably with the Swiss League, which is one of the minor European Leagues but not bad teams. The game here in the U.S. is more Latin influenced than the kick-and-rush style of some of the European leagues. I think MLS is underrated and looked down upon by people from abroad who have never been to a game here.

Q: What did you think of D.C. United this season?

A: I thought they were mostly poor, but at the same time that was already a huge improvement over the previous three seasons. I think some of the tactics employed and some of the selections employed were baffling.

Q: Was Ray Hudson a good coach, and should he have gotten another year on the job?

A: I don’t think so. I think he was a great personality for the club and a lovely bloke, but there was something strange about the way he swore that every game was going to be the time that Marco Etcheverry had to prove himself and this was his final chance. Then Etcheverry would play a stinker and still be in the lineup the following week. … I think that’s been the problem at D.C. for the last four years: An underreporting, overpaid professional was not given the ax when he should have been, as any proper professional club would have done. That reached right through the whole team.

Q: You’re pretty harsh on Etcheverry.

A: Unfortunately, I only came here in 1999, so I never saw him in his best days. I saw him for half a good season, and ever since then I’ve been outraged at his general lack of effort and professionalism. I am amazed at how a coach has tolerated it for the last four years.

Q: What do you think of the playoff format?

A: Eventually I’d like to see a single league and relegation to the A-League. I don’t think it’s realistic at the moment because of the franchise system. The playoffs inevitably [have their] faults and detractors, but this year’s playoffs were actually very entertaining. All the final three San Jose games were great, and in that sense the system has spoken for itself quite well.

Q: What can the world learn from MLS?

A: I think it can take a look at the salary cap as a way of creating more equality in the game in Europe. There are too many predictable leagues there. … The whole idea here of having salary caps and the draft ensures that MLS remains interesting every year. It’s very difficult to predict.

Q: The U.S. men’s team is ranked 11th in the world. Is that a fair ranking?

A: I don’t think the FIFA world rankings have meaning to anyone who is a soccer fan. The fact that the U.S. team reached the World Cup quarterfinals was an exaggeration of its ability. But the U.S. is definitely in the top 20 to 30 teams.

Q: When will the U.S. team win the World Cup?

A: It won’t.

Q: Not in 20 years?

A: The U.S. team has as much chance as Scotland, which means it won’t.

Q: What MLS players could make it in the big leagues.

A: I mainly focus on D.C. United, and I haven’t seen many there that would make it. I think it was a shame the Bobby Convey transfer [to Tottenham] fell through; having seen him play in the U-20 World Cup recently, he definitely could make it, whereas I had my doubts before.

Q: Do you think the game ever will be accepted by the American mainstream?

A: It’s going to take another 30 years. A huge key to that will be targeting the Hispanic audience, something that is severely lacking right now.

Q: Coming back to D.C. United, who stood out this season and who didn’t?

A: The whole defense stood out. [The players] really worked well together. Mike Petke was a pleasant surprise. Brandon Prideaux did well near the end and was very solid, as were Ryan Nelsen and Nick Rimando. They all formed a good base at the back, which the rest of the team didn’t work on. Ben Olsen was starting to have a very good season. Dema Kovalenko had a fair season [but] not as good as everyone seemed to think. The rest of the team from the point of view of attack and attacking midfield was extremely disappointing.

Q: What do you notice about the crowds that is different from Europe?

A: The various fan clubs in the crowd help create a really good atmosphere, which is quite a feat considering the huge stadiums. The part of the crowd I don’t understand are the people sitting with their popcorn like they are at the cinema and watching very passively. I find it hard to sit still when I am a spectator, let alone at home watching on TV.

Plenderleith’s book can be obtained at www.ianplenderleith.net.

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