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Get in the game
by Ridge Mahoney, February 27th, 2009 4:30PM

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Fans in Toronto, Washington, D.C., San Jose, Chicago and Columbus and a few other MLS cities are proving one tenet of the league that too many critics ignore; as good as soccer on TV can be, it is a sport that is best experienced live with a team to root and cheer and live and die for.

Rather than turn up their noses at a more modest product than what they can see dozens of times a week on the seductive yet distant big screen, they wisely indulge in both, and why not? To me, there's no contradiction in adoring Manchester United and also trudging out to RFK Stadium at every opportunity, especially in June, July and August when the European leagues take their break.

Two days before the MLS All-Star Game in Toronto, I sat in the stands at BMO Field to watch TFC play Montreal in Canadian qualifying series for the Concacaf Champions League. Behind me was a group of fans who obviously attended games and probably played on same team, athletic, passionate people in their 20s and 30s, speaking several tongues and on many soccer topics, including the game they were watching, which occasionally provoked obscenities in English and Portuguese from two of them, both women, and both critical of Toronto's inept attack.

Now, if you're a die-hard fan, or are the offspring of same, you may have no choice. Those are hard-wired bonds, not just to the team but to the country and the league in which it competes. And it surely amounts to a drop in class to turn off Lionel Messi and Barcelona because it's time to head out to Crew Stadium.

Yet an awful lot of Americans have convinced themselves it's better to ignore or even ridicule the league in their own land. I pity them. They are not wrong to regard MLS as something less than the European Champions League, Premier League or Serie A, but that's not the point. The live experience still trumps all else.

Three decades ago, when I lived in San Diego, I'd see all manner of Brits, Europeans and Mexicans head out to see the Sockers do battle with the Cosmos, Sting, Rowdies, Sounders, Timbers, et al. The Sockers weren't their team but soccer was their game, and the quality and atmosphere were good enough to quaff the experience in person.

At one game, behind me sat a father and his son from London on holiday. They knew little about the league or the players, but were fascinated by the American game.

I asked them which team they supported. "Fulham," the son replied. I must have regarded them with a quizzical look, for the father added, 'Oh, they've never won anything."

Last time, I checked, they still hadn't. But the quaint confines of Craven Cottage remain one of the most scenic settings to watch a game, though the team's struggles to stay in the Premier League are hardly stuff to scintillate the soul.

We live in a different era, one in which soccer bombards our TVs and computer screens. It's all too easy to lounge on the couch or sit behind the screen or gather at the bar, watch a game in a stadium far removed, and pretend it's the real thing. Fortunately, the word is spreading in at least a few MLS cities that getting out to the game can be just as much fun.

Seattle topped 20,000 season tickets sold this week, and it's sure bet that a lot of those people follow the game in other parts of the world. Many Sounders FC officials see parallels with Toronto; both teams are backed by the most powerful and successful sports operation in the city - the NFL Seahawks and NHL Maple Leafs, respectively - yet both are also situated in diverse, cosmopolitan cities well-steeped in the world's game.

If MLS teams can persuade more savvy fans to sample the MLS product, it's far more likely than not that said fans won't be seduced and mesmerized by magical flicks, blitzkrieg counters, and brilliant combination play.

But what can bring them back and make them care is the noise and the buzz and the excitement bubbling in the stands, the sense that something real and tangible and intense is happening. More is needed than fog machines and sirens and gimmicks to artificially pump up the crowd; it must respond as well as provoke, and only fierce competition on the field, where every point means something, can supply that.

Critics point, rightly, to the caliber of play as a major MLS drawback. No question, but just as important is the intensity of play, and as the number of teams increase, the odds of making the playoffs decrease, and so is ratcheted up the importance of each game, and each point. So the competition to be better and get better players intensifies, which feeds down to the field.

A lot of fans in a lot of MLS cities have taken it upon themselves to get in the game, and be part of the game, and have a good time. Whether or not David Beckham returns to MLS and when, if ever, Raul or Thierry Henry comes to these shores, won't matter so much if the staple of MLS is tough, honest, competitive soccer. On any day, there will be flair, but on every day, there must be heart.



0 comments

  1. commented on: February 27, 2009 at 5:42 p.m.
    My family of four had season tickets to the San Diego Sockers in the 80's until we left California. The Sockers games were exciting and fun and were often sold out. And the skill of some of those players was phenomenal! Ron Newman was the coach and he managed to win even though the salary cap seemed to be reduced every year and he had players who didn't like each other at all off the field, but played as a well-oiled team on the field. When we moved to northwest Arkansas, we drove to Kansas City a couple times on the weekend to see the MLS games (at least a 3-1/2 hour drive). We didn't stay overnight... just stopped for dinner and then drove back to Arkansas. When I first moved to Florida in 2000, I was thrilled that I would be able to attend MLS games in 2 different venues... however, I ended up working 2 jobs and never had the time... and then the Florida teams were gone. I have the Comcast sports package, so I do try to watch the national teams and the MLS games. And I have the option to watch European and South American teams, too. I wish I lived closer to an MLS city. I do enjoy the live games. I hope to catch a game in Los Angeles when I visit my son there later this year. I had wanted to have the chance to see Beckham play, but I may just go to watch Preki coach Chivas (he used to play against the Sockers and I have followed his career ever since).

  1. Jeff Wood
    commented on: February 27, 2009 at 6:14 p.m.
    I have had the opportunity to attend many of the home games for real salt lake in salt lake city. The new stadium is awsome. I think the mls teams are getting much better & would like them to start playing friendlies with the english premier. I think we would start having those legendary names in the u.s as well.

  1. Mark Aegerter
    commented on: February 27, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.
    Ridge, how right you are. My father-in-law got me hooked on the game during the World Cup 98 in France. He was born in Albania, escaped to Greece as as little boy, then off to the States in the 50's. That little introduction has built into my obsession with the sport. But the passion is usually in front of the tube in my family room. I drive my wife nuts with the surround sound blaring, trying as I may to make it sound as if I am there. Many memories watching with my son, Liverpool FC in England the team we support, jumping up and down, screaming during big games. But, it is not the same, I am sure. I have only had the opportunity to see three live games, Man U vs Bayer M in Chicago five or six years ago. Our first MLS game in Chicago two summers ago, and a trip to KC last summer for another MLS game. I have been able to plan summer vacations in cities with an MLS team, but my wife is starting to catch on. I find myself hypnotized by the KOP in Liverpool, but only on the TV. Both MLS games we have attended, I look on at the supporters section, and wish I was there, supporting my own team. Even the away team during my Chicago trip, Toronto, traveled well with their supporters. Many players from the Toronto team took time to autograph my son's, 9 years old at the time, mini MLS ball. Do you think he cares if those guys are playing in the Champion's League? Believe me, he knows the difference, but he cherishes that ball still, as it sits on his bookcase with his few awards of his own. Won't let anyone touch it, in case the marker would smear. If only Garber would get off his arse and give St. Louis a team, I may still get that chance....................

  1. Kent James
    commented on: February 27, 2009 at 9:22 p.m.
    Great column. Of course the EPL, Champions League, etc. has higher quality play, but those games are hard to attend. And to get players who can compete in with those teams, we have to have a league to develop them, and that is built on the existing soccer infrastructure, with the MLS at the top. I've been a season ticket holder for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds since their inception as an A-league team (they averaged about 4,500 fans per game the first year, and had some quality players). I was hoping they would move up to the MLS (surely the Pittsburgh Metro area could support such a franchise) but instead, a stadium that was very tough to get to led to a decline in attendance, and they moved down instead. They now play in a HS stadium with maybe 1,500 fans, so the atmosphere leaves a lot to be desired, but unless they get support, how can we hope for more? I attend MLS games when I can, and love all the new soccer-specific stadiums, but the bottom line is that fans create the atmosphere we all love, and making that effort is the key to the success of soccer in America. So don't be a soccer snob and turn down your nose at what we've got, make it better by putting your butt in a seat at a game (and bring your friends; it's the patriotic thing to do!).

  1. Alvaro Bettucchi
    commented on: March 2, 2009 at 3:33 p.m.
    Excellent article and so truthful. I have followed the Earthquakes since they began their first time here in the Bay Area, many, many moons ago. One of my greatest moments, with all my family and friends, when they beat Pele and the Cosmos. That game turned my children on to Soccer, and now my grandchildrren are playing. I would hope that the MLS would have a second division in each state, so teams could be in San Francisco, in Sacramento and oither smaller cities. Kids are playing all over, but do not have a chance to support major teams or go to their games. Keep up on your fine articles.


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