GROWING PAINS EDITION
So this past weekend was supposed to be my first Red Bulls game of the season, what turned out to be their 2-0 defeat of San Jose. But I didn’t go. I saw my hometown Atlanta Braves lose to their arch rival Mets at Shea Stadium instead (accessible by the subway!!) for the second day in a row after a friend invited me.
The first Red Bulls home game fell two days after my birthday, and friends threw a party for me that game night. So I didn’t go. The second game fell on the same day as FC Harlem’s 1-1 tie against the Brooklyn Knights, the first big test for the infant Harlem club. I wanted to spend some time with the players for the feature I am (still, yes) working on about the biggest little soccer club in the world. So I didn’t go.
It’s now Monday. Back in the office for my ‘real’ job and thinking about the weekend past and the two that lay ahead…
“On an otherwise good weekend at the box office, the Red Bulls drew just over 9,000. No wonder the New York Times barely acknowledges MLS’s existence.”
Apparent even with a column on the Red Bulls from the venerable George Vecsey, the straight shootin’ Goff isn’t saying anything those living in the tri-state area haven’t heard for years, but for Goff to say it marks it down in stone, a hand print you might say in the concrete presently being poured in Harrison. Will it be a laughable reminder during better times or a bad omen about how the more things change the more they stay the same?
Clearly it is not just the New York Times ignoring the Red Bulls. And with every low attendance comes more doubts about whether Red Bull Park is going to draw a new (a first?) crowd. But who am I to say? I have no concept of successful marketing. It completely befuddles me, and hey, I haven’t been to a game this season even though it is a team, I do believe, that is worth watching, and one that has from my limited point of view as loyal a supporters group as just about any team.
And all the marketing in the world isn’t going to get me out (although the subway access to Harrison will help – but what if they build a new franchise on the 7 train in Queens?). You don’t have to sell it to me. I’m sold (and I have a press pass, though there is still that one little issue about taking a bus to the Meadowlands from Penn Station ((can I harp on that anymore?))). But I also at least feel as if I have a busy life, though I know that compared to my New York age groupers climbing the career ladders I probably have more free time.
Add in the fact that–and I’m not exaggerating when I say this–I don’t have a single soccer friend here in the city who I could call and be like “let’s go to a game.” I know I’m not the only one who can say they are soccer-friendless, and I’d guess everyone can agree a sporting event is better not with Coca-Cola but with some friends (I wouldn’t have gone to the Braves games alone). And here in the city, we have just a few options to choose from when filling our dwindling free time and spending whatever is left of our paychecks after the enormous price (literally, dollars) we pay to live in New York.
On Saturday night I hung out with a friend at my place before heading out on the town for some shenanigans. MLS Direct Kick was on my TV. Houston v. Columbus. “Two of the better teams in the league,” I told my non-soccer fan friend as I turned the game on. Curtis Mayfield smoothly protested as only he (and maybe Marvin Gaye) can over my stereo as one of the most enjoyable MLS game I have watched this year unfolded silently through the grainiest picture ever to come out of my television.
What was initially little more than my wanting to keep tabs on the various Saturday night games turned into a non-soccer fan not just enjoying, but engaging with MLS on TV. “Rewind that,” my buddy screamed as the rubgy scrum on the Columbus goal line inexplicably commenced. Diving goal keepers; riled up midfielders; even a bit of shoddy play that led to tantalizing moments; 15,000 fans in the stands. it was maybe a perfect game as a MLS initiation for a big sports fan who just never played or paid attention to soccer. But he enjoyed it, really enjoyed it. He peppered me with questions throughout as Mayfield was tuned out for the Columbus broadcast team.
Sunday morning I set the alarm to get up and watch the soccer games I had missed on Saturday. Through the good graces of DVR technology I caught the Toronto-KC and the Galaxy-Chivas games. Heading out the door to Shea Stadium I was kind of enjoying Donovan’s new in-your-face attitude.
Sunday, piled on top of Saturday, had me still thinking about—and as like every soccer fan, I’ve explained the sport and league here to a few people—just how different MLS is for an American sports fan.
You see, I leave on Thursday for England. It will be my first trip to the UK, my first EPL games. I’m going to catch Fulham’s last two match-ups of the season: at home against Birmingham City and then away to Portsmouth. A 3-2 victory in their last game against Manchester City has Fulham still hoping they will be in the Premiership next season. We shall see what happens to the team and its gaggle of Americans.
“They’re kind of terrible, aren’t they” the burly New Yorker in a Raul Cassanova jersey sitting in front of me at the Sunday Braves-Mets game asked about Fulham when I informed him I was going to see my first EPL games next week. This was after he saw the Arsenal jacket under my Braves cap and told me he attended the recent Liverpool-Arsenal Champion’s League game. “Oh man,” was my only vocal reply, the jealousy falling from my mouth along with some peanut skins.
He said he spent a lot of time in London on business. He’s a Chelsea fan. He loved the new Emirates Stadium. He had not heard of Clint Dempsey. He did not know that his beloved Mets owner might be buying into MLS, building a field perchance on the very ground where we were sitting (Shea Stadium, the Mets present park, is being torn down at the end of the season and will be replaced by Citi Field which is going up next door).
I don’t know what any of this means beyond that this American melting pot has been stewing for so long it seems no ingredient, no decision can be seen as obvious, no fan easily identified. Yeah, the Red Bulls are having a hell of a time attracting fans to their games (and it is not just RBNY), and the soccer fan in Mets regalia sitting in front of me at Shea is unlikely to go to any of them.
On the other hand, I bought tickets for the next two Fulham games through the club’s website on Friday, so even London’s oldest club had not sold out what will be a very important game in the cozy confines of Craven Cottage a week ahead of time. But they will surely be close to packed come game time right?
I don’t know what that means either. If there is one thing you know about me from reading TIAS, it is that I have a lot more questions than answers. That’s science. That’s Darwin. So here we are: when a soccer fan born in the last couple of years in New York turns thirty, no matter what city they live in, will they follow the professional soccer team I never had growing up… like I follow the Braves? Or will they be catching Champions League games in London while on a business trip without the knowledge that the American soccer product indeed has something worthwhile to offer? Would it even matter if they were told so?
Questions are common for adolescence, and MLS is going through those growing pains now. But there are moments of maturity that give you hope. The answers will come when we find out if that hope translates into an adult that has something to offer… that people want to buy. Then we can look back decide whether we’d do it again.
Banner image from the movie poster for 1975’s Let’s Do It Again, starring Sidney Pottier, Bill Cosby, and Jimmy Walker among others. The soundtrack was written by Curtis Mayfield, performed by the Staples Singers.