BlazerCon was so huge, we had to re-live the pomp, pageantry, and pie in two parts. Be sure to check out Part One, in which we celebrated Friday evening's festivities with Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore, NBC's Rebecca Lowe, and former Leyton Orient owner and London media mogul Barry Hearn, who speaks like a man who could stab you in the shoulder at literally any moment.
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SATURDAY, ACT I: Pie Hard with a Vengeance
"Lots of beers, lots of bicycles," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber remarked of BlazerCon's trappings off Franklin Street in Greenpoint.
The commish opened Saturday's proceedings with a one-on-one chat with Man in Blazer Roger Bennett on the State of the MLS Union. The venue was appropriate for Garber, who grew up in Bayside, Queens; one gets the sense that it's been rewarding for him to watch the culture of the game evolve in the Five Boroughs, with New York City FC representing -- hopefully! -- a game-changing advance.
It's fair to say that nobody understands the torrents of criticism leveled at Don Garber better than the man himself: promotion-relegation nuts, economics professors, #EuroSnobs, Cosmos fans, and free-market capitalists all have their beef with MLS's top man, whose approach to growing the league is conservative, incremental.
And, of course, there's this mortar shot from Friday night's closing guest:
Barry Hearn on MLS signing old geezers: "Do you want to visit a hooker or do you want to get married?" #BlazerCon— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
"People shit all over the Commissioner, for some reason," he quipped to Bennett, noting that he doesn't check his Twitter notifications anymore.
Garber knows precisely why the shitters shit, and why he often declines to meet with media at public appearances (This time, D-Garbz actually did talk to us! Stay tuned for that.): fans in America watch the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga in the morning only to switch over to MLS in the afternoon and find themselves wanting. And they largely blame Garber & Co. for allowing the U.S. league to be outpaced in its development by foreign rivals.
Viewers worldwide all want the same thing: to watch the best players, full stop. There's no comparing the European product to its American spinoff, just as there's no comparing an Audi RS6 to a Chevy Cavalier. But the unique structures of Major League Soccer, especially its economics, deny free-spending sugar daddies the opportunity to turbocharge MLS clubs as they have in Europe, from Manchester to West London to Paris.
The commissioner mentioned 2001, when MLS and its owners tentatively agreed to shut down the league in the face of financial insolvency. The specter of that time is clearly still burned into memory. The result is an incredibly cautious approach to growth: the salary cap, limits on international players, and frequent roster turnover meant to foster the purely American ideal of competitive balance.
Nothing drives the Eurocentricists crazier, especially those in full support of, say, bringing a promotion-relegation system to America. Garber is quick to retort those loudest of loud voices.
Garber: pro/rel was created in the 1800s. If the major Euro leagues were created today instead, they wouldn't have pro/rel— RayHudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
I believe in good faith that nobody believes in MLS more than Garber, but it's hard to find too many in the fans' rank-and-file who endorse his methods out loud. Despite his insistence that the league isn't stuck merely taking baby steps, "The Soccer Don" has yet to be booed for the last time.
On the main stage, the commish gave way to Everton manager Roberto Martinez. Roger Bennett, himself an Evertonian ever-suffering in the shadow of next-door-neighbors Liverpool, sat with the Toffees' gaffer to explore the art of management in the relentless whitewater of the Barclays Premier League.
— RayHudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
(Here's our chance to make a joke about "Cool Hand Lukaku.")
He spoke about making the managerial jump from Wigan Athletic, his thoughts on MLS (he's cautiously optimistic), and the importance of the often-maligned UEFA Europa League tournament in ripening Everton's young talent. He singled out striker Romelu Lukaku, midfielder Ross Barkley, and defender John Stones in that regard, the latter two of whom continue to make inroads into England's national side.
But Martinez's finest moment? Declaring his goalkeeper, the invulnerable Tim Howard, to be the greatest American player of all-time.
I wondered in the moment if the Everton gaffer could make the filing deadline for a White House run in 2016. He's already got the perfect Defense Secretary.
INTERMISSION: A quick word about crap
We were giddy in anticipation of the early afternoon programming-- U.S. Men's National Team legend and FOX Sports pundit Alexi Lalas hosted a panel on the future of Major League Soccer alongside three league owners, followed by a keynote talk from City Football Group CEO Ferran Soriano about the inaugural year at New York City FC.
We won't cover that here due to the specific pertinence of the subject matter for Hudson River Blue. We'll publish a dedicated analysis later on. For now, however, suffice to say that the Lalas and Soriano panels left a bit to be desired.
Now-- back to the bacchanal!
ACT II: "Women are from victory, men are from Germany."
From Barcelona to Manchester, Ferran Soriano has engineered a number of winning teams against the toughest competition in soccer's toughest continent. But the group that would follow him on the main stage puts his humble empire to shame.
Once the stage was clear and the Guinness refilled, it was time for three members of the World Cup champion U.S. Women's National Team to step under the lights.
Moderated by FOX Sports ace Katie Nolan, we learned a hell of a lot from the eternally victorious Heather O'Reilly, Ali Krieger, and Becky Sauerbrunn:
- Sauerbrunn and Tobin Heath like to play Assassins Creed together.
- The USWNT's "class clowns" are Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez.
- O'Reilly: "People want to watch women's [club] soccer. It just needs to be on a channel that everyone gets."
- Defender Meghan Klingenberg may have housed an entire bottle of tequila after the World Cup final in July.
Heather O'Reilly: "Becky needs a sponsorship from Marvel Comics. She needs her own character." #BlazerCon— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 14, 2015
— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) November 15, 2015
Paul Carr, who was a key figure on Bennett and Michael Davies' video commentaries during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, gave way to Crystal Palace's Parish. Davies was quick to remark that the chairman smelled so good that you wouldn't believe it.
Parish, a gleefully brash South Londoner, made a point to wonder out loud if Davies' preferred Chelsea -- the defending Premier League champs who've fallen on serious hard times -- 'would be able to stave off relegation this year. The vast majority of the crowd could warm up to this.
But the hottest ticket was always going to be voice-of-La-Liga Ray Hudson, who never met an angular, corkscrewing, burst-fire metaphor he didn't like.
As Bennett described him, Hudson is something like the bastard son "of Ian Darke and Salvador Dali" (although his work is far easier to understand than Un Chien Andalou).
As Dali did suggest, some memories are persistent, and nobody has created more persistent memories for Ray Hudson than Lionel Messi, the Barcelona wizard who, at age 28, is at least a part of the general conversation for the best player of all time.
Hudson acknowledged feeling some bodily pleasure -- nipple-hardening, to use a technical term -- when Messi dekes out defenders and yo-yos the ball into the box only to leave an endless string of hapless goalkeepers prostrate on the deck, grasping at nothing.
The esteemed guest wouldn't be staying in New York for long; he was due to broadcast the titanic Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the capital city's Estadio Bernabeu in a matter of days. Before he high-tailed it out of town, though, the Men in Blazers, hefty broadswords in hand, conferred their own brand of sub-optimal knighthood on the celebrated commentator.
Sir Ray of Gateshead. Lord of House Hudson. Delineator of the Mystical Arts. Baron of beIN Sports.
The Champion of Our Hearts and of Our Erect Nipples.
After the curtain fell, we spoke to Ray about the history of his verbal aesthetic, as well as his take on the state of Major League Soccer, his memories of playing for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the old North American Soccer League, and a whole lot more. Look for that one to drop in the coming days!
As the bacchanal migrated a few blocks north to Shayz Lounge, the masses that made up this inaugural BlazerCon, despite supporting so many soccer clubs that patently hate one another, were of a single mind: the night wasn't allowed to end. Not yet-- more time was needed to figure out what soccer in America had done for itself on this weekend.
As Bennett and Davies waded through the crowd in a sea of backslaps and selfies, it felt as if the Men in Blazers brand had reached the same crossroads MLS faces after surviving its first twenty years-- the product that begins as a sub-optimal experiment, unless it simply fails, is bound to evolve into something else entirely.
Surely it wouldn't be very English of someone like Roger Bennett to turn on a dime and cease referring to his and Michael Davies' work as pure, crystalline crap. That brand has been essential to their messaging through the first five years of Men in Blazers mythology.
But the merry presence of 1,300 exuberant fans and a who's-who of luminaries, overlords, and effing world champions on this weekend in Greenpoint all points to one thing-- America is the place, more than any other, to transmute crap into gold (or Guinness).
Because even if it sometimes smells like shit, it's still the Beautiful Game.