Yes, I'm aware that I haven't previewed MLS - well, now it's technically a view. And yes, I'm aware of what happened tonight in Carson and Ciudad Laguna. I'll get to those, too, unless something unforeseen happens, like a shiny object. Right now, though, it's time to talk about Phil Schoen, Gol-TV, and the Europa Cup.
How do real journalists talk and write at the same time? Is there some sort of magic that can record the human voice over a cellphone? That would have been very handy.
Anyway, huge thanks and apologies to Phil Schoen, who was nice enough not to hang up on me after a storm of obscenities. Full disclosure - a lot of this is going to be paraphrasing, but most especially my questions, because otherwise this would be four pages of "um," "uh," and me starting questions over because I was going off on some idiotic tangent. Phil doesn't get paid enough.
Me: So, we're talking about the Athletic Bilbao-Manchester United match in the Europa Cup. [Which will be broadcast live tomorrow at 2:00 pm Eastern/11:00 pm Pacific.] What can you tell us about the teams? Do you have a rooting interest?
PS: I'm very familiar with Athletic - I have distant relatives with Basque ancestry, so -
Me: Oh, so you have a little bit of a rooting interest?
PS: There are two teams that I really support, the US national team and Arsenal. So, maybe it's better for Athletic if I don't cheer for them.
Me: Tell us a little bit about Athletic Bilbao. This is a team that, if they were offered Messi, they'd say no, because he doesn't speak their weird-ass moon language?
PS: I think if they were offered Messi, they would get a team of lawyers together and search every record available to maybe come up with a birth certificate. Athletic's Basque-only policy used to be extremely tight. They would only sign players from the Basque Country in northern Spain and southern France. It made Chivas of Guadalajara look profligate. It's a relatively small area to come up with so much talent. Their success comes from their school system bringing up so much talent.
Me: How has Athletic Bilbao been able to compete in Europe with that policy?
PS: You are limiting yourself. The numbers get to you, and limiting can be suicidal. But the policy is something they take a huge amount of pride in. You have to give a tip of the cap to their youth development, to come up with players like Llorente and Herrera. You also have to give a lot of credit to their coach, Marcelo Bielsa.
Me: Will they be able to hold on to Llorente?
PS: It will take lots of money. I'm sure they have national banks on speed dial. He's the sort of player, to pick an example, that someone like Manchester United could use. He fills a role that has disappeared in the modern game - he's a lot like Chicharito, but more imposing. He's a dinosaur, but he's a pretty good example of a dinosaur.
Me: Speaking of Manchester United - both United and Manchester City are still in the Europa Cup, and fighting for the Premier League title. Can they focus on both?
PS: I think they can. Manchester United went into this season expecting to compete both in the Premiership and in Europe, so they did expect to compete for two trophies at the same time. The best laid plans kind of disappeared, but in a way that makes it a little easier. We've seen a lot of new faces from Manchester United, especially in the Ajax game. Sir Alex Ferguson said maybe we went a little too young in that game. But a team like Manchester United has a lot of talent stockpiled.
Me: Would Manchester United want to focus on the Europa Cup, if it meant losing ground to Manchester City?
PS: Having two teams focused on the Europa Cup gives an opportunity for silverware. Considering the rivalry between the two teams, neither one would want to surrender anything to the other. Both teams have a long history in Europe.
Me: Now, what's the main appeal of the Europa Cup, from a viewer's point of view?
PS: It's not the Champions League, which means you have teams less inclined to bunker. In the Champions League, there's a great deal at stake, and teams play accordingly. With the Europa Cup, it's more wide open.
Me: So the appeal would be the quality of the games?
PS: You get better games on a game by game basis. If you look at the last few champions, you have teams like Atletico Madrid, Porto - if you're just limiting your Euro watching to the Champions League, you're missing out on a lot of good games.
Me: This is more of a big picture question [which I screwed up pretty badly] - in America, there's nothing incongruous about supporting a team hundreds or thousands of miles away, a team you may never see play live. Which is something historically that's alien to European football, despite the jokes about Manchester United's support being centered in Thailand. Is that something European football is ready for?
PS: If it's not handled well, it could be a negative. You definitely see clubs pricing out the common fan. The club still has the money, but it loses atmosphere. The Bundesliga, which you also see on Gol-TV, has done a very good job of balancing this, making sure that the loyal fan still has a chance to go to games. I think this is a modern era. You can live in the south of France, and still support Bayern or Schalke. The Premiership has the fan advantage, in terms of atmosphere. La Liga has a talent advantage. In Italy, it's tactics. With the Bundesliga, it's more of a complete package.
But even though you see Rangers in financial trouble, you haven't seen lesser clubs in lower divisions get gobbled up by megaclubs. The clubs are based on neighborhoods, and the roots are very deep. I'd love to see some way to keep local fans involved.
Me: What other games will you be covering in the near future?
PS: We have the Coppa del Rey in Spain, the Coppa d'Italia, we have the Brazil tour of the US - not the games against the US national team, but the other games. And then later we will have the Euro World Cup qualifiers, which should be very exciting.
Me: One last question - does Ray Hudson script his lines?
PS: It's emotion, and you can't fake that. He does a lot of research, and a lot of preparation, but what he does best is knowing when and how to say it.
Me: Thank you very much!
Hopefully I kept Phil's responses within the realm of readability - if it seems disjointed at all, absolutely blame my inability to keep up with him, not Phil Schoen. Enjoy the game! I certainly will, if only to get my mind off the smoking crater that used to be my club's CONCACAF hopes....