Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

An outsider's perspective on MLS

Ahead of Manchester United's match against the Union in July, former United star defender Denis Irwin visited Philadelphia on Tuesday for a Q&A with local reporters. Irwin shared his thoughts about the state of soccer in America and how it can grow in the future.

An outsider's perspective on MLS

Denis Irwin poses for a picture with Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Denis Irwin poses for a picture with Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

If you are relatively new to soccer, you might not be too familiar with Denis Irwin. Even if you've been following the sport for a few years, you probably just missed the end of his long tenure with Manchester United.

The former defender spent 12 years at Old Trafford, playing a total of 525 games. His teams won seven First Division or Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup, the 1991 UEFA Cup-Winners Cup in 1991 and the 1999 Champions League.

Irwin also played 56 times for the Republic of Ireland's national team from 1990 to 1999. He was on the roster for the 1994 World Cup, and started against Italy and Mexico.

Yesterday afternoon, Irwin came to Lincoln Financial Field to promote Man U's match against the Union in July. He did a Q&A with reporters, and I've transcribed the highlights. Afterwards, you'll find some video highlights from Irwin's career that I found on YouTube.

Which big names will Manchester United bring to play?

Obviously, you've got the three old wise men in Gary Neville, [Ryan] Giggsy and Paul Scholes. Edwin Van der Sar, and obviously a good mix of youngsters as well: [Luis Antonio] Valencia, the da Silva twins [Fabio and Rafael], Jonny Evans, John O'Shea, [Federico] Macheda and Welbeck.

In Juventus' loss at New York on Sunday, David Trezeguet said his team did not match the effort and energy that the Red Bulls brought. What does it take to motivate the touring team when the MLS side is giving everything it has?

Juventus have had a long, hard season. The MLS has been going since March. So they're obviously really, really fit - they'll probably be at their fittest in the next couple of months. When United come over, they'll be a little bit rusty. But whenever you put on the Manchester United shirt, you go out there to win.

They'll have two weeks of training before they play here, they'll have one game under their belt. They won't be at full throttle, obviously - that takes four or five weeks of preseason. I'm sure the Union went away for six weeks or something like that. You need that training and you need the games to get ready for the first game of the season August 15th.


To what degree has the perception of American soccer changed in Britain over the last few years? People there used to be rather dismissive of it - perhaps because it's American by nature, or perhaps because the players weren't as good.

I don't think they were dismissive of it. I think because the vast majority of the big leagues are in Europe - the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A - I think there's enough going on over there that it's very hard for people to keep an eye on what's going on over here.

I came over here with Ireland for the 1994 World Cup and MLS wasn't even up and running then. You can see the progression. The national team have qualified for the last six World Cups. You see more and more Americans coming over - not just to the Premier League, but also playing in the Bundesliga, playing in France.

So you can see that the quality is getting better. Landon Donovan's been over on loan at Everton, he's been a huge success. Brad Friedel's been around for quite a while, Tim Howard's done fantastically well at Everton. Clint Dempsey at Fulham, Brad Guzan at Aston Villa. [Marcus] Hahnemann at Wolves - you seem to throw a lot of goalkeepers our way. [Carlos] Bocanegra was at Fulham, now he's playing in France.

So there's a lot more quality coming over from America, and I think you're going to see more of that because the quality of MLS is getting better. It takes time - it just doesn't happen overnight. I think it's great that Philadelphia have come on board next year, and you have two more teams coming on board next year.

It's getting bigger all the time, and I think you've done it the right way as well - from the grassroots up. I think you've seen the success of that, and I think it can only get better.


How does a touring player balance the technical and physical aspects of a preseason friendly?

Well, as a player, you play to win. It's as simple as that. You run for as long as you can. It's still preseason, only the second week in. So they'll run for as long as they can, and there's quite a few games within that two-and-a-half week period, so the manager will spread the games around for all the players.

The players really love coming over here. It's obviously going to be hot, there's no getting away from that, but the facilities are great and they can enjoy themselves here. I know they did in the past.


What's key to improving the quality of play in MLS? What's left to do?

You've got to make sure you do it from the grassroots. I don't know what the quality of the coaching is here, but you obviously need good coaches. It takes time, you need progression. You need your national team to keep qualifying for World Cups. They did it quite easily this time, finished top of the group.

They've had a few tough friendlies, this year, haven't they. And they go into a group that I think they can very easily get out of with England, Slovenia and Algeria. I think they've got a good chance of qualifying.

And all this with the public watching. The thing is that over here you have other sports that are so powerful, and you have to compete with the. But if you see your local team doing well and the national team doing well, you'll have more and more kids wanting to play the game.


You talked about the need for good coaching in the United States. Is Sir Alex Ferguson the last of a dying breed? Will there ever be another manager likes him who stays in one place forever?

It doesn't happen too often. Arsene Wenger's been at Arsenal a long time as well. It's just the culture of today's society that you don't get long to be a success. I think in the Premier League now, for a lot of teams success is just standing still and staying in the Premier League.

Fans want success straightaway, and you can't always deliver. At the start of the season, you've got four seasons to win. Obviously, the Premier League and the European Cup go hand-in-hand - they're set up as the main ones to win - and then the FA Cup and Carling Cup.

So all teams can win, and Arsenal haven't won a trophy in five years. Liverpool, it's been a few years since they've won. Arsene Wenger has just come under a bit of pressure lately.

But over the last three or four years, United have been really successful. Prior to this year, they won three Premier Leagues in a row. They werre actually going for a record this year - nobody has ever done four. Unfortunately, in the last four or five weeks, you need everything to go your way - with Wayne [Rooney] getting injured and a couple of decisions going the other way, it didn't quite happen.

I've been there on other occasions where it does go your way - there's such a fine line between winning and losing. But it's the culture. You won't see too many managers staying the distance that Sir Alex has done.

More coverage
 
The Goalkeeper: World Cup TV, radio schedule

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected