Tyrone Mears: Soccer felt like it didn't mean a lot in MLS

Tyrone Mears crammed in a lot during his time in the United States.

Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins poached the Englishman for the Seattle Sounders, where the late Sigi Schmid helped him acclimate to U.S. life. He won an MLS Cup in 2016 and was awestruck a few months later when he joined Atlanta United for their inaugural season. He even tested himself at the league’s other 2017 expansion franchise, Minnesota United.

Softened Ts crept into Mears’ Mancunian accent over his three-and-a-half years in the States, but the right-back didn’t adopt other aspects of the culture quite as easily.

“The fans are obviously a lot more hard here in England,” Mears, now with West Bromwich Albion, told theScore via phone. “In America you get congratulated for having a good game when you get beat, but here you get put to the sword.

“I just feel it’s a lot more important in England. That’s what I’ve found since I’ve come back.”

‘A loss isn’t that much of a big deal’

Dempsey and Martins invited Mears to train with Seattle after the Manchester City graduate watched the Sounders take on LA Galaxy during the 2014 regular season. Mears had recently been released by Bolton Wanderers and was undergoing rehabilitation in Los Angeles on a career-threatening leg injury.

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Mears was 32 when the 2015 campaign commenced, and could’ve been forgiven for feeling anxious after such a serious setback seemingly late in his career. But he was shoved into the deep end: DeAndre Yedlin was bound for Tottenham Hotspur, and Seattle needed someone to fill that void.

Thankfully, Mears was grafting for a coach renowned for close relationships with his players.

“It was really different for me, the way it worked in MLS, and he really helped me to settle into the club,” Mears shared of Schmid, the legendary tactician who passed away in December. “Any problems he was always there, I could knock on his door. He was fantastic. I played so many games under him and really, really enjoyed it.”

Mears started 33 of the Sounders’ 34 regular season matches in 2015, and played every minute of the postseason until they were eliminated from the Western Conference semifinals in a penalty shootout by FC Dallas.

Soon, Mears picked up on the popular complaint of MLS backlines. “Money that’s invested in clubs there is in attacking positions (so) I felt the defending was not very good,” he said. But there was an even bigger culture shock for him when he found MLS didn’t have the bite of the English terraces, nor the voracity of the locker rooms.

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“There’s times where a loss isn’t that much of a big deal,” he said after noting his belief that the generous playoff quota diluted the competitiveness of the regular season.

“I found that a lot because, I think when I first went to Seattle, we’d lose a game and I’d be really upset. But the lads were a bit more calm and relaxed. They’d be talking about different things (like) what they’re going to do at the weekend and stuff like that.

“I didn’t feel like it meant a lot. I had to quickly understand that some of these guys were not earning very good money, and they enjoyed playing football but saw a life after it.”

Schmid parted ways with the Sounders in July 2016 after four U.S. Open Cups and the 2014 Supporters’ Shield – an impressive haul, but the ever-heightening expectations from supporters demanded an MLS Cup final. Mears was singled out for criticism in Schmid’s last match in charge – a 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City – after he broke from a jog to allow Dom Dwyer a straightforward finish.

Schmid’s long-serving assistant, Brian Schmetzer, was promoted to pick up the pieces. Schmid had left the Sounders 10 points below a postseason berth after losing 12 out of 20 matches.

Buoyed by the midseason arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, the club suffered only two losses in the next 14 MLS outings. If Mears was right about concerning levels of competitiveness among his teammates, it appeared that it had been addressed, and Seattle earned an eighth consecutive postseason slot.

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The Sounders then devoured Sporting KC, FC Dallas, and the Colorado Rapids in the playoffs, before overcoming their spot-kick demons in a tight MLS Cup final triumph over hosts Toronto FC. That is the only major honor of Mears’ career thus far.

Changing Major League Soccer

Seattle let Mears leave for Atlanta United in the offseason for $50,000 in general allocation money. The deal offered the full-back an alien proposition for many English footballers: the opportunity to join an expansion franchise.

The newcomers didn’t suffer any of the expected growing pains, as Atlanta hit the ground running.

“One of the best-run clubs I’ve played for,” Mears declared. “They invested heavily in the club. The stadium, the training facilities – they’d rival any top Premiership team.”

The 36-year-old acknowledges that Atlanta United changed the face of MLS. He was teammates with Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and many other intelligent acquisitions, but there’s no doubt who the best signing was: Gerardo “Tata” Martino. The Argentinian boss didn’t just enliven MLS with young Latin American talent through wise scouting; his playing philosophy reverberated across the United States and Canada.

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“Obviously he had a very big reputation – he managed Barcelona and Argentina – and he just changed the way teams play in MLS,” Mears said.

“To start with a team that had never played with each other before, the confidence we had, the way we dominated games, it was really, really good to be involved with.”

Mears’ final stop in MLS was with Minnesota United, a setting he conceded was “completely different” than the ambitious project in Atlanta. The move presented another interesting stop in an already fascinating career, having played under colorful characters like Kevin Keegan, Alan Pardew, and Eddie Howe in England, and even working for Belgian veteran Eric Gerets at Marseille. But it also strongly qualifies him to answer a popular question: How does MLS compare to English football?

“Atlanta play a way where they like to keep the ball, it’s not a fight like the Championship,” Mears explained. “There’s a lot of quality in that team. The Championship’s different.

“I think if you put them in the Premier League they’d have a better chance of performing well. They wouldn’t have the squad to compete, but certainly the starting XI. Eight or nine of those players could certainly play over here.”

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