The United States is a country often targeted by Premier League clubs when looking to grow their fan bases but for Everton, their connection with the country is more than just skin deep.
From legendary goalkeeper Tim Howard to 100-time United States international Joe-Max Moore and beyond, the Toffees have a long history with players from across the pond. And, perhaps more than any English club, Everton have visited American cities year after year to nurture their fanbase and maintain those strong bonds.
This year is no different, with the Blues touching down in Baltimore recently ahead of a friendly against Arsenal next week, before traveling to Allianz Field to face MLS side Minnesota United. It’s another chance for the club to meet genuine fans on the other side of the world and to show them just how much their support means.
“The US is probably one of, if not the most important international territory for us as a football club because of the huge affinity we have with the US and North America,” Scott McLeod, Everton’s head of engagement and communications, told 90min in an exclusive interview.
He added: “The longstanding connections we’ve got with North America, not just [through] Tim Howard, but Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore. There’s a long list of links between the club in the US which means that America was always special for us and we always felt like we had a strong fan base in the United States.
“We’re also been really keen to grow that fan base and increase our commitments and our devotion to that fan base. And not just doing that for a one-week preseason tour, although it’s a huge opportunity for us, but our relationship with the US is very much 365 days a year now.”
Everton were one of a small number of clubs able to get out to the United States in 2021 as the world started to emerge from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, winning the Florida Cup against Pumas of Liga MX and Colombian side Millonarios.
For winger Demarai Gray, that was one of his first experiences with the club following a transfer from Bayer Leverkusen, with the strong turnout of fans leaving a lasting impression.
“I actually met the team there when I signed last season for the Orlando, Florida trip, which was nice, and it’s actually nice to do pre-season out there as well,” Gray told 90min.
“Going out there last year, we had a good turnout, and I think it’s nice for us to go back out there. Obviously, we’re in a different place this year, but just to see how big the support really is. The Premier League’s quite big in America as well, it’s growing out there. I think it’s important for the club as a whole, so hopefully, we can spend many more pre-seasons in America.”
Over the last decade, McLeod has noticed a sharp increase in the numbers of Americans turning out to matches with a genuine love and ‘sense of belonging’ to Everton, rather than just English ex-pats living abroad.
Americans are spoiled for choice when choosing a Premier League club to follow and could easily opt for a current powerhouse, rather than one whose most successful period came in the 1980s; before the Premier League even existed.
So, why Everton? For McLeod, it all comes down to ‘values’.
“One of the values that makes us the club we are is around authenticity,” he said. “I know there’s the view that Evertonians are born not manufactured, it’s a phrase that fans use and what we’ve found in the United States is that there’s an awful lot of Evertonians over there.
“A lot of those Evertonians don’t realize they’re Evertonians yet and it’s about finding those fans, finding those people who share the same values as our club, have the same passion for the brand of football that Everton is synonymous with, and for what it means to be an Evertonian. To be part of a club that’s got such strong community values, but strong community values that can translate and resonate with people.”
Everton’s friendly against Minnesota United will be extra special given the Loons are managed by Toffees legend Adrian Heath.
The ex-forward was a key part of Everton’s greatest-ever team, scoring 93 goals in 307 appearances to help the club lift two league titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup Winners’ Cup, and four Charity Shields between 1984 and 1987.
Heath played a key role in making sure MNUFC brought Everton to Allianz Field and arguably knows better than anyone else on US soil just what the club means to those that come into contact with it.
“Everton changed my life and I don’t say that lightly,” Heath told 90min in a phone interview. “I met some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life. I played with a group of guys who I’m proud to say were not only great players, but great people, who are still my friends to this day. I speak to Reidy (Peter Reid), Sharpie (Graeme Sharp), Sheeds (Kevin Sheedy), and Snods (Ian Snodin), all that group. I know people know that they were great players, but what they probably don’t know is that they’re great people as well.
“I feel incredibly proud, not only that when I look back and think that I played for the club, but when I think of all the great teams and great players who’ve graced that famous stadium, and that shirt. For me to be able to say that maybe we were in one of the best teams they’ve ever had, is something that I know, as a group, we never took lightly, but we’re all incredibly proud of what we achieved.”
Despite only entering MLS in 2017, Minnesota United already have a long history of hosting friendlies against European clubs. From Aston Villa to Hertha Berlin, some big names have taken to the Allianz Field pitch. But Heath is clear that none of them will top nine-time English champions Everton; an opponent MNUFC simply couldn’t turn down.
“I know that when the club asked me do I think it would be a good draw, I was going to be biased, but I just said to them, ‘We can’t afford to turn this down’,” said Heath.
He added: “This will be the biggest team that we’ve had at the Allianz Field. That’s no disrespect to the German teams we’ve had, and we had Aston Villa. I said, ‘this is the biggest club that will have played in our stadium, ever’.”
Putting sentiment aside, Heath has a team of his own to manage. Minnesota United are sixth in the Western Conference but only above the MLS Cup Playoff line by a single point and need to maintain their current three-game winning streak.
What’s more, putting in a good performance against Premier League opposition in front of new fans is a far better first impression than any adertising campaign or marketing ploy.
“All the major TV and news outlets have been running the fact that a Premier League club is coming,” said Heath. “I always say this. If these games only bring 3,000, 2,000 people who’ve never been to a game before, that is an opportunity for us to turn them into regular, consistent fans. And that’s why it’s important that we put a good show on. So people don’t go, ‘Yeah, I told you, but it’s not the Premier League, because that team spin over here and beat you 8-0’.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to keep them supporters, and that’s the way we have to look at it. But more importantly, we want to give Everton a really good game.”
More information on Everton’s fixtures against Arsenal and Minnesota United is available here.