Texas®

While Europe has long been considered the home of “Major League Football” and South America has often hosted teams that were nothing short of Futbol dynasties, The Great 48 has been picking up steam when up it comes to not only the quality of play we can display here, but in the enthusiasm of the supporters (aka “fans” for the uninitiated) that loyally follow the clubs they often will to victory.

In recent years, Texas has been the home to two of the MLS’s best teams. The Dynamo of Houstonhave been perennial contenders that took home the MLS Cup as the league’s champion in both 2006 and 2007 (after entering the league in 2005, which makes the back-to-back titles even more impressive). As for the Frisco-based FC Dallas (formerly the Dallas Burn), they were a sad, “own-goal” away from being crowned champions this past season when they lost a heart-breaker to the Colorado Rapids.

Perhaps even more impressive than the on-field credentials that each team has built is the devotion and organization of the folks that support each team for each home-game (not to mention many road-games). Whether it’s the Texian Army in support of The Dynamo, or The Inferno in support of FC Dallas, each group makes clear their intentions to any who may wonder: To fully and vocally encourage their team at all times throughout the 90 minutes of each game.

By organizing pre-game tailgate parties that often end with a coordinated group “march to the match,” these fans are showing all others what it’s like to really be a supporter in far more than name only.

Chants? Check. Group Songs? Check. Coordinated color clothing? Check.

Such details are common-place in Europe and other soccer hotbeds, but here in the states, outside of a few college football-crazy spots, such obvious fanaticism has withered away from our professional sports landscape as many of the prices to attend events have made it so that the average fan is unable to attend regularly. With both Houston and Dallas, strides are made to include fans of all tax-brackets. Cheap to free parking, regular ticket-discounting programs and even drink specials make it easier for people to come equipped and ready to support their favorite squad.

For information on both the teams and the official supporter groups, see below:

Houston Dynamo:

FC Dallas:

It has an interesting name, and it’s an interesting place. Tucked just off I-75 and just north of Park on the southbound side, next to a motorcycle shop and a Steak-n-Shake in what was the Alamo Grill location, a soccer-themed English pub-style restaurant has opened its doors. Allen Wickers Public House is here.

The name is inspired by one of the great adventurers of the 20th century who’s name has become part of cockney rhyming slang. Allen Wickers (wickers-knickers-pants) literally takes on the “Traveling Pants” and brings high quality pub-grub, but with a few twists.

Wickers, the man, was one of those writer/adventurer/Renaissance men in the spirit of an Ernest Hemingway or Winston Churchill. You know, someone who wasn’t content to sit and watch others idly, but would simply go-and-do. In fact, Wickers was a “Bentley Boy”; a part of a group of English gents who raced in the first 24 Hours of Le Mans at a time that it was considered fanciful for a car to run, let alone race, for a full day without breaking.

He was cut from the British cloth that defined a generation of men who would sail around the world on a yacht one year, then climb Mount Everest the next. To head out on a safari in Africa, or to explore the length of the Nile for no particular reason but adventure wasnt anything unusual for these types of men. He might have even been one of the inspirations behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, as they may or may not have worked together for the Home Office during WWII (it’s hard to get spies resumes right sometimes, you know?).

Wickers’ son, Allen Wickers II, was a broadcaster that joined the British Army at the age of 16 and earned a position as a commissioned officer in the Film Corps where he followed and documented the savage battles in Italy during that tumultuous period of time. Wickers II later became a correspondent for BBC, traveling the world with his program “Wickers World,” which would often be the subject of parody by Benny Hill and Monty Python.

Opening a pub with a moniker like Allen Wickers could only be fitting for English themes, and of course, Soccer is the dominant sports theme when discussing anything UK-related. The FC Dallas fan cub has taken root in the pub, as have dozens of local soccer enthusiasts to watch road games and enjoy some scratch-made everyman grub.

“When someone recognizes the name they really get what we are about here,” Manager and Partner Evan Rupp says. “I really wanted to do a place that was not just another sports bar, but had some unique things. Really, we were lucky, because the folks who did the (now defunct) Alamo spent a lot of money on the facilities, so when we got this space, we were able to concentrate our efforts on making it unique.”

General Manager Robert Lenore brought his degree in Restaurant Management from Texas Tech and his years of management experience from Brinker and Red Robin to the team. “For years I have been wanting to do something like this,” says Lenore of the new and promising project.

When I say “Everyman Gastro-Pub”, I mean that the food is scratch-made-fresh, yet the presentation tends to be slightly lacking with baskets and plates acting as the main serving dishes. “I’m OK with that,” explains Lenore. “There are other places that spend the effort on final, artsy presentation and spend money on fancy plates; their food may look great, but I know ours tastes great and that’s more important to me.”

The British Pub-standard Fish-n-Chips is made with hand-cut Cod, battered with a light crispy tempura and doesn’t feel greasy like some places tend to serve.

“Because of how good this location was, when we were lucky to get it, we came out of the box pretty quickly. Overall, it was around 60 days from lease-to-open and that’s pretty short, but we seem to have earned some regulars already. It really is a neighborhood place where you can feel at ease and you don’t have to yell over music or deal with a lot of pretense.”

Lenore continues, “We also have open ears. The thing that really separates us from chain places or corporate diners is that we are always listening and interacting with our customers. If they want a specific beer or something, the decision-makers to do that are sitting right here. It gives our customers direct access to the guys who are making it happen.”

Those years in Food Service prepared Lenore for the ups and downs of opening a new location, but for Rupp it was a different story. “I had worked a lot of retail and grew up in a construction family,” recalls Rupp. “Not having a great deal of restaurant experience, the biggest thing I had to learn was that opening didn’t mean you would get customers right away.”

“I will admit to having some second thoughts, I mean this is really my inheritance here,”  admits Rupp. Rupp’s father had successfully built multiple construction companies specializing in concrete, paving and infrastructure, but his own aspirations always included getting into this kind of business.

A couple of years ago, opening a soccer-themed sports bar anywhere in North Texas would have been considered a tremendous risk, but the success of FC Dallas, along with changes in the demographics of Plano, have made this type of venture’s success a real possibility. “We’re aimed at a soccer crowd, as far as sports go, but really, if the Cowboys or Rangers are on, we’ll put the TV’s on what the crowd in the place wants,” says Lenore.  Lenore’s own Red Raiders might just get preferential treatment as well.

Currently there are over 16 beers on tap, and a wide selection of bottled and canned options are also available. “As we go, we find out what works. If someone wants something special on our list, we are more than happy to give it a try,” Rupp says. “It’s all about making what our customers want, actually happen.”

“We have had a lot of success with any of the Fuller’s; the IPA and others like that, we sell a lot of. For a while we had great success with the Kronenbourg, but they’re on strike now and we can’t get it. We do different things, so it’s not just the imports that we move a lot of. We have a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) tap for no other reason than it’s cheap,” Lenore says. “We’ll tinker with things and make changes, but really our biggest challenge is to get people in the door the first time. After that, they come back because we try to treat them right.”

Included in the facility is a separate event room for up to 50 called the Boot Room, and plans are in place to put a patio in the back to host live-music and to offer outdoor seating.

One item I tried on the menu of particular note is the Meatloaf Sandwich. That choice was so substantial, that when I picked it up, the “heft” alone made me stop and look at what I was doing. A thick, hand-made meatloaf slab was topped with mashed potatoes,-onions and mushrooms in a satisfying way. It’s the kind of stick-to-your-ribs kind of food – simply prepared and presented – that will satisfy your hunger and stay with you for a while (in a good way!).

As for the long term, the guys are thinking about opening multiple locations, but are sticking to the knitting of making their Allen Wickers Public House the kind of neighborhood spot that’s worth leaving your neighborhood to find.

 www.theallenwickerspub.com

Allen Wickers Public House

2301 N. Central Expressway Suite 195

Plano, Texas

972.424.2300

The Hoops are off to a 3-1-1 start in preseason, the latest victory a 9-0 mauling of Florida International University. Kenny Cooper scored four second half goals in that affair. Granted, FIU is a college team that hasn’t even officially started practicing for their spring season, but it’s nice to get a nine goal game under your belt all the same.

In terms of the impending cutdown to a 24-man roster, the Hoops have some difficult decisions to make. Should they keep 5 strikers? Should they deal a developmental player? Will they sign an attacking midfielder, like rumored target Walter Gaitan?

Whenever FCD travels to Brazil each spring, as they are scheduled to do in the next week, they have enjoyed good training plus player acquisitions. Brazilian partner Club Atletico Paranaense has loaned FC Dallas a couple of nice players so far: the recently-departed attacker Ricardinho and the current starting right winger, Andre Rocha. Odds are FC Dallas will bring back another loaner from CAP and increase Portuguese-fluent Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman’s brood of Brazilians.

There’s a likelihood that Kenny Cooper could be off to Europe during the summer transfer window, so it will be important for the Hoops to be on their guard for that eventuality and put another top-rate striker on their radar. As for the defense, it is rounding into form. The signing of American defender Steve Purdy from 1860 Munich promises an expected Purdy-Drew Moor center back tandem with open competition at both fullback spots. The midfield is also taking shape. Unless there’s a top attacking midfielder signed between now and opening day, the position is Dax McCarty’s to lose. The starting wingers will be Dave van den Bergh on the left and Andre Rocha on the right. Pablo Richetti will captain the team while playing defensive midfield.

In their last game, FC Dallas earned a 1-1 draw Saturday against BK Hacken of the Swedish first division. That brings their preseason record to 3-1-2. It’s late February, less than a month before first kick, but Hoops’ fans have a lot to like in this collection of talent. There is, in fact, reason for optimism heading into the 2009 season.

81810872RY016_Kansas_City_WFC Dallas played their first preseason game last week in Houston versus the Dynamo. They were beaten 3-0, and all three goals came from the flanks. The Hoops gave up 31 goals last year on the flanks, so this constitutes a worrying trend. Manager Schellas Hyndman has looked to address this problem in the offseason, but this is still a work in progress.

On Monday the Dynamo visited Pizza Hut Park for the second leg of this preseason tilt. This time FC Dallas managed a scoreless draw against their superior southern rivals. Both teams had plenty of scoring chances today, but the finishing for both sides was lacking. Hoops newcomer Dave van den Bergh was active, but his corners were suspect. If FC Dallas is going to be better on the flanks this year they need Van den Bergh to be good.

Keep watching for more action later this week as the Dynamo play the Beckham-less Galaxy on Thursday and FCD has home field advantage Saturday against University of Memphis, a hotbed of soccer talent.