WORDS: LUKE JAMES
Simon Dawkins has worked hard to get where he is in the game. Unsuccessful trials and injury problems had the winger worried a few years back, but after earning a new contract at his parent club, Tottenham, the North Londoner is enjoying a loan spell with a difference across the pond in the MLS…
Coming from North London to Northern California can be a bit of a culture shock to say the least. What do they say – two cultures divided by a common language? Try two cultures divided by a common game.
Soccer in the MLS is simply not the same thing, culturally, as football in the English Premier League. And the differences go way beyond whether the bloke in charge is called the head coach or the manager.
Simon Dawkins is in the second year of his two-year loan from Tottenham Hotspur to the San Jose Earthquakes. The 24-year-old was born in Enfield but currently lives in Santa Clara, California.
At the age of 17 he joined the Tottenham Hotspur Academy, when Martin Jol was manager, and, although Dawkins featured regularly in the reserves, he failed to make the first team. By the time Harry Redknapp was manager, Dawkins had joined Leyton Orient on a one-year loan. Dogged by injury, he was released from his Spurs contract. He had trials at French club RC Strasbourg but then returned to Tottenham on a non-contract basis while he recovered from injury. He would be given another shot at a contract if he was declared fit at the start of the 2010/11 season.
In August 2010, Dawkins went for a trial at Celtic and then, a month later, he went for another with AFC Bournemouth, where he was injured in a reserve game against Plymouth Argyle. However, he continued to train with Tottenham, even scoring in a training-ground friendly against Milton Keynes Dons and, in March 2011, he was rewarded with a new contract with the club. The following day, he was loaned out to San Jose Earthquakes in California.
Having myself left behind the dubious delights of Islington in 1988 and arrived at SFO International airport with a suitcase, a guitar and $1,000 to my name, I can attest that life out here is very different. Attitudes are different. People are a lot more polite and friendly.
It took Simon a while to settle here, though, and in his first season he lived in a hotel. This year he’s renting a house in Santa Clara and has a girlfriend. Basic lifestyle adjustments like this may be part of the reason why this year he has become one of the Earthquakes’ most valued and dangerous players.
I spoke to the club’s head coach, Frank Yallop, who began his second spell in charge of the Earthquakes in 2008. With 13 years and over 300 appearances at Ipswich behind him, including the first three seasons of the Premier League, Yallop has as good an appreciation of the cultural differences involved as anyone.
“Now he’s got more than 50 games here, in his first real spell as a player and it suits him,” he said of Dawkins. “I think the environment suits him, the way we play and the way the league is set up suits Simon and he’s a very good player. Just to watch him training, he’s marvellous – clean feet, quick, very good vision and obviously doing well now, so I’m happy for him.”
In his first year, Dawkins made 19 season starts, playing basically as a left-winger, and scored five goals. This year, with five regular season games to go, as well as MLS Play Offs, he has started 20 games and scored eight goals. He played his first full 90 minutes of the current season against Real Salt Lake on April 21 and scored the game winner in the 92nd minute with a diving header to contribute to a developing Earthquakes tradition of scoring vital goals in injury time.
As Dawkins’ fellow San Jose striker, Alan Gordon, who played alongside David Beckham at the LA Galaxy from 2007-10, told me:
“Honestly it’s all about spirit, it’s something special. You’ve got to start giving us credit for never saying die. I mean it’s real, if there are any nonbelievers out there, they should be believers now because we’ve done it all season. It’s not luck, it’s no mistake, it’s hard work and determination and belief.”
Dawkins was out for almost two months this year with an injured shoulder, but in his second game back against the Seattle Sounders, on August 11, he scored the winning goal. He scored two more goals on August 25, against Colorado Rapids, and another in the game against Chivas USA on September 2.
When I spoke to Simon Dawkins at the Earthquakes training ground , situated next to the vacant lot which, by the 2014 season, will house their $65m, state-of the art new stadium, he was quick to point to the differences between football in England and soccer in the USA.
“Back in England it’s a lot faster; it’s played at a higher tempo,” he stated, before explaining that he feels at home in the MLS. “I can play at this tempo, this is a good tempo for me to play at. Maybe it suits my game better, just the type of player I am, so I’m really enjoying it.”
Yet there is a speed and awareness about Dawkins’ play that surely comes from his English football background. On September 22, in a crucial game against the Seattle Sounders, he took just 90 seconds to bring the ball to the fringes of the Seattle defence, before scoring a superb goal with a strike from 25 yards out.
Waford-born Yallop thinks that a positive, supportive coaching style brings the best out in a player, especially a young player coming to the States from overseas. Indeed, young players coming into MLS may find a beneficial style of coaching born of an optimism that is often a part of the American way of life.
“From my side of it, I look at it as being as positive as I can be,” the former Canada international explained, “because if I start being negative and making excuses then the players will start doing the same.”
Thus far, the image of American soccer has very much been of European and South American players, nearing the end of their careers, coming to the States for rich rewards. Most think this dates back to the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer coming to play for the New York Cosmos in the NASL of the Seventies (although, as early as 1894, Baltimore were discovered to have secretly imported most of the Manchester City team to play for them in the newly formed American League of Professional Soccer).
But is it possible that, now, the MLS might start to see younger players coming over the pond to bring some Premier League input to the land where football is called soccer?
Well, recent years there have been a few more examples than you might think:
Giles Barnes (24) at Houston Dynamo
Korede Aiyegbusi (24) and Dom Dwyer (22) at Sporting Kansas City
Richard Eckersley (23) at Toronto FC
Jason Griffiths (25) at New England Revolution
Eddie Johnson (28) at Portland Timbers
John Rooney (younger brother of Wayne Rooney, 22) at New York Red Bulls and Orlando City
Matt Watson (27) at Vancouver Whitecaps
Ian Westlake (28) at Montreal Impact
Ryan Smith (25) at Chivas USA
Kyle Patterson (26) at LA Galaxy
Andy Iro (27) at Toronto FC
Chris Birchall (28) at La Galaxy and Columbus Crew
It might not exactly be a flood, but many a deluge starts with a trickle. And, when Dawkins’ loan deal is up at the end of this season, there are plans in hand at San Jose to see what can be worked out to keep him with the Earthquakes.
In Yallop’s eyes, there are plenty of reasons to head over the pond at the moment and the standard of football in the MLS is one of them.
“When you don’t know this league you think it’s not very good, but when you actually play and coach here and are around the league, you see it’s a good league.
“It’s a tough league to play in. You ask any of the players who’ve come in in the last three years from Britain or from Europe – it’s a very tough league to play in and doesn’t really get the credit it deserves.”
As for Dawkins, well he is just enjoying spending a season with a team who sit top of the Western Conference and five points clear of their East Coast Conference rivals Sporting Kansas City.
“Ah, it’s excellent, everyone’s just for each other,” he told me as our chat came to an end. “You can see it on the field, how we’re all together. It’s just amazing to be playing here right now.”
Go west young man.