By Paul Kennedy
The most entertaining part of the summer of soccer, I admit, has been Louis van Gaal's complaining.
From the moment van Gaal got off the plane in Los Angeles, he's let anyone who will listen to him know that Manchester United's four-game tour of the United States -- five games if it advances to the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup in Miami -- was not his idea. If it wasn't the "dreadful" travel between match venues, it was the local traffic he didn't like. United was staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel -- one of the most opulent hotels in the world -- but rather than waste time on the LA freeways between sessions at the StubHub Center and return to Beverly Hills he booked 20 rooms at a nearby Holiday Inn so players could nap. The tone for the tour was set when he was late for the pre-game press conference before the opening game against the Galaxy and he grumbled, "This is the first time I’m late for a press conference."
Somewhere along the line van Gaal didn't get the message. This is what Manchester United does: tour the world. Chevrolet didn't pay $559 million to become the United jersey sponsor for the team to be holed up in some Alpine retreat for a month. All I'll say is that I'd love to hear what van Gaal has to say next summer when United is on the fourth country of its Asian tour.
Van Gaal's complaining continued Saturday in Denver. In his first 135 minutes as United manager, his new team had outscored its opponents, 10-0, and all he could do was complain about the second half, blaming the heat and altitude for the poor United performance. Miralem Pjanic scored from inside the Roma half, and van Gaal ripped young goalie Ben Amos, basically saying he, at almost 63 years old, would have stopped the shot. That's the Iron Tulip for you.
What made van Gaal's comments so startling were they were so off-key. A dozen or so other European teams were crisscrossing North America, and you didn't hear much complaining. Rudi Garcia, Roma's French coach, is a no-nonsense guy, but he knew the drill. Asked what he thought about all the traveling, Garcia said it wasn't his place to complain. "If we play in such tournaments," he said, "it means we're a big club, so I hope we play in these matches for a long time to come."
Arsenal made its first trip to the United States in a quarter of a century, and Arsene Wenger, whose preferred summer haunt is one of those Austrian hideaways, could not have been happier, even if Arsenal was the only EPL club to lose to an MLS team, dropping a 1-0 decision to the New York Red Bulls.
"For us, it was a great experience," he said after the game. "Everybody enjoyed it and nobody wants to go home. It was a short trip but a very exciting one because New York is a special city. But what is even more special for us is how popular football is now. The values we stand for are shared here and everybody was very friendly and everybody respects what we try to do. One of the values we have to stand up for as well is when your opponent is better than us, we have to say, 'Well done.' And today that was the case."
What has stood out about this summer of soccer is how natural it all seems for these teams and players to be playing here and interacting in the soccer community. In the past, there was always a sense that these clubs were carpetbaggers out to make a quick buck. No doubt money is the motivating factor. But there's a respect now that wasn't there before. Wenger was clearly touched to have Arsenal so welcomed in a soccer city like New York. The U.S. performance at the 2014 World Cup has something to do with that respect. But so does all the work MLS has done to grow the game.
One of the comments that stuck out came from Inter Milan's young Croatian Mateo Kovacic. "I understand the appeal of MLS now," he said. He was participating in a Twitter takeover Inter Milan organized Sunday morning. All the social media things that we take for granted the European clubs are doing on tour -- Twitter takeovers, Google hangouts and the like -- they are learning from their MLS counterparts. Again, the respect factor.
One of the sore points about touring European clubs has always been the perception they were capturing fans that MLS couldn't. That is now all but irrelevant. There are lots and lots of soccer fans out there and they will watch whatever they want -- World Cup, MLS, EPL, even meaningless preseason games -- in whatever form they want -- on television or their smartphone, in stadium or at a public viewing event. It shouldn't matter that MLS isn't the only option. All that's important is that it is one of the options.
Above all, one is struck by how much at home the touring players feel in the United States. It really hit me, watching the "Football at Fenway" game between Liverpool and Roma on NBCSN. Long after the game ended, Rebecca Lowe and the crew were still on the air, talking with Daniel Sturridge on their Fenway set. American viewers see Sturridge in their homes for nine months out of the year, and he was in turn completely comfortable talking to them. On and on he went, talking about this and that, his role at Liverpool, how it changed from his days at Chelsea and Manchester City, nothing special but entirely interesting. Lowe finally had to go a break to wrap up the evening, but Sturridge could have sat there all evening and talked with the NBCSN crew. And we'd have stayed up all night and listened.