(Reuters) - Having several times experienced the red-hot atmosphere of an ‘Old Firm’ derby with Scottish club Rangers, life back in the MLS could perhaps be a little tame for Maurice Edu.
But the 29-year-old Philadelphia Union midfielder believes the same rivalries that are so deeply-ingrained in Europe can evolve in North America, even if it will take some time.
Edu, who spent four years with Rangers, winning three Scottish titles and playing in the Champions League, before a forgettable spell with Premier League Stoke City, returned across the Atlantic to a changed soccer landscape.
With more franchises, better stadiums, TV deals and youngsters clamoring to get into Academies, the sport is beginning to make serious inroads into the usual diet of NFL, baseball and basketball, especially in the metropolises.
Players including former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard will be playing in the MLS next season and the national team is thriving.
“A lot has changed, not only has the standard of play increased but also from an infrastructure stand point as well, you see a lot more soccer specific stadiums that have been built around the league,” Edu told Reuters.
”Every team now has an academy system which is very important, not only for developing our youth team players for the MLS but also to give them exposure to professional soccer and help their development as a professional player wherever that may be.
“We can also see the fan base developing and each team having different rivalries with distinct supporters groups within each club.”
Not quite to the same levels of Rangers and Celtic, Liverpool and Everton or Roma and Lazio maybe, but Philadelphia boast the Sons of Ben: a passionate bunch whose enthusiasm helped form the team in the first place.
“The Glasgow rivalry is unique and cannot be replicated and you will not see anything like that around the world,” said Edu, who scored a 93rd-minute winner for Rangers against Celtic in 2010 after coming on as a substitute.
”But the Sons of Ben also have a unique story in as much as they started before the Philadelphia Union team, they were the catalyst and reason why Philadelphia finally gained an MLS team.
”It was their loyalty and determination to form a supporters group and petition and lobby the league for years that finally meant the league granted an expansion team.
”We want to get to a point where the traditions are so deep that when the kids are born they are born into that rivalry like what happens in Scotland.
“In Glasgow you are born into that rivalry and support either Rangers or Celtic, we want that in U.S., where you are born into an environment where you know this is my team, who I am cheering for and you know who you are cheering against. We are getting closer in the U.S.”
The sheer size of the U.S. and the fact that most cities only boast one club is a problem, says Edu.
”There are two inter-city rivalries in NY and LA but apart from these it is difficult due to the size of the country,“ he said. ”For Philadelphia the local rivals are DC United and the New York teams, the fans still get up for these and treat them as a derby.
”When these teams come to Philadelphia they are made to hate it, the fans give them stick and let them know who the home team is. When Thierry Henry came to play for the Red Bulls against Philadelphia he admitted to hating it.
“If any European fans came to USA and especially Philadelphia then they would be pleasantly surprised with the intensity of the atmosphere.”
Editing by Ossian Shine