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An eye on the world of 'soccer' - New York style

Jack Bell celebrates his 21st anniversary as a soccer writer for the New York Times in March.

Total Football's Hayley Thorpe asked him about his experiences, how the perception of the game has changed in the US, the US women's team and the impact Jurgen Klinsmann (pictured) can have for the US men's team.

You saw a Barcelona v Real Madrid game a few years ago. What was that experience like?

The game ended 3-3. It was an unbelievable evening. At the time, Johan Neeskens was the assistant, I knew him from his days at New York Cosmos. So, after speaking with Frank Rijkaard, I asked him if Johan was around and he replied which one, Neeskens or Cruyff.

How unbelievable that was and then two days later I was lucky enough to do an interview with Ronaldinho at his house, thanks to Nike. It was very brief but it was definitely a highlight of my time at NY Times.

How would you say the perception of soccer has changed over the past 20 years in America?

I'm not quite sure how the perception has changed. I think there is a grudging recognition that we're more plugged into the world and that soccer is kind of the lingua franca of the sporting world. So, in that sense, it has changed.

However, there are some folks in the US who will never accept soccer and see it as a kind of international conspiracy to make Americans like the sport. It clearly won't happen.

What has happened is a recognition among the soccer power structure and you will never convert those folks, and it's simply better to try and cater to people who has an affinity for the sport.

Another point to keep in mind, something that most people outside the US don't realise, is that there is more live soccer on TV here than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

During the weekends you could watch soccer all day from around 10am right through until the evening watching games from England, Germany, Italy, Spain the US and South America. This is another change to recent years.

Have the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane changed the way people look at and interpret soccer in America?

I think the influx of international stars has changed perceptions, but really only in the sense of showing people really how far we have to go in terms of understanding the game and developing skills. The differences in those skills is really pretty stark among those players and most American players.

New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe suspended Rafael Marquez after his critical comments towards his team mates - what are your thoughts about that?

Well, simply from the public comments I wasn't surprised by the decision. The real question is what the team does with Marquez, after this season because he is signed for another two years at $4.6 million a year.

Rafa is sorely out of place in this league, much of what he had to say is true, he is playing mostly with players who are not at his level. I think this is a point of frustration for many foreign players who come to the US.

If Rafa thought his team mates were on par with those at Barcelona he was mistaken, same goes for Beckham, he's also had to deal with those frustrations, although he wouldn't publicly admit it.

The US women's national team were ranked number one in the world in the FIFA world rankings topping Germany. What are your thoughts about that achievement?

The women's team had an incredible World Cup and I think the level of their play and the excitement of the tournament won over a lot of people.

They didn't only attract the young girls. They worked hard and played well, showing that the women's game can be truly exciting and just as good as the best of men's soccer.

Saying that, the future of the women's league in the US remains in doubt because people are always comparing it to the excitement and skill of the World Cup, which we all know is impossible to sustain for any league.

The question within women's US soccer these days really resolves around whether the rest of the world is catching up to us.

The women's game is primarily a creature of the US college system. It had a huge boost about 30 years ago when the federal government mandates that colleges that accept federal money for research had to offer equal sporting opportunities for men and women. It's called 'Title IX'.

So what happened is that women's soccer, with 22 or more players on a team, was seen as one of the sports that could be a great equaliser.

These days you have more colleges fielding women's soccer teams than you do men's teams because it's a huge offset to sports like American football.

Who do you think will win the MLS this season?

I think that Los Angeles is the class of MLS so far this season, at least before the play-offs. Once the regular season ends, it's really a jumble in who could win.

The guy who has really stood out for me this season is Sebastien Le Toux, who plays for Philadelphia. He might not be the best player in the world, but he's incredibly good and does not ever stop running.

As you can tell by the name he's French, but he has played in the US now for around seven years.

Why do you think players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry decided to give American soccer a go?  

Firstly, the money they earn is pretty decent for late in their careers. The pressure and attention is not as extreme over here, they can generally walk the streets and go about their business without constantly being hounded.

Finally, with the level of skill here, they could all probably play until they're 40.

What do you think of Jurgen Klinsmann?

I think Jurgen Klinsmann can only do good things for the US national team. I believe the key, at least for the players, is that they now have a guy in the locker room and at training that has succeeded at the highest levels of the game.

There might be some questions over his tactical acumen. He's in a unique position because we really don't have any important games until the summer when we begin World Cup qualifiers.


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