It’s beautiful lunacy.
A huge collective of adult men (and a spattering of adult women) throw on scarves, jerseys and t-shirts; or they throw on worn ball caps and jackets. They dress for battle. They head down to their neighborhood bars, donning their tribal colors, and they begin to drink with their fellow tribesmen. And watch a couple dozen men kick a ball across a green field, hoping the warriors fighting for their tribe get lucky enough to plug the ball into the opposition’s net. And scream with joy. And scream with agony. Near misses. Near chances. Glorious plays. Glorious defeats.
In pro sport, grown men (an a few women) in bars do not put in minutes for the team. They do not train with the team. They do not travel with the team. They do not play for the team.
So they shout. And they drink. And they argue. Because sport is combat where – if all goes to plan – nobody dies.
It’s beautiful lunacy.
Growing up as a kid in Texas, soccer was a brilliant, riveting endeavor – a thrilling game – that belonged to someone else. It was Mexico’s game. It was Spain’s game. It was South America and Europe’s game. It was Univision and Telemundo’s game.
It wasn’t my game. I truly adored this game called futbol. But I loved it as an outsider. I was peering at this wondrous world of free-kicks and offsides through a slim keyhole. The rules and analysis were sputtering at me en Espanol. It took me ages to decipher what the offside rule was; a wiry man on the side on the field would raise a yellow flag and, suddenly, the Spanish commentators would groan in frustration.
The passion was infectious. The spirited, feral cry of “GOOOOOAAAALLLL” was a staple in the soundtrack of my soccer-viewing youth.
Yet, at a professional level, the sport wasn’t mine. It belonged to someone else.
So, it was with childish thrill that I made my way to a local Brooklyn bar, settled in with the locals, and watched RED BULL NEW YORK take on FC DALLAS on NBC Sport‘s inaugural MLS broadcast.
And, what if only an average of 82,000 viewers watched the game domestically for NBC’s first Major League Soccer outing?
This First Kick was mine.
The passion was still infectious. The play was wild and fun. The field was green and beautiful. There were wonderfully sublime goals by Dallas’ Ricardo Villar and New York’s Kenny Cooper.
And it was mine.
Perhaps RED BULL NEW YORK or FC DALLAS aren’t FC BARCELONA or CHELSEA. But they’re mine. I’m the kid who finally gets to pass through the keyhole and bathe in the whole experience of futbol.
The magic and the agony and the pain and the drama.
It’s finally mine.
And, to any Yanks reading this who were one of the “average” 82,000 who were watching NY vs Dallas this past Sunday, keep watching!
Because this damn thing is ours. This league is ours in a way that the Premiership or Serie A or La Liga (the league I watched as a child, even) will never be.
Sport is so much more than the play on the field. It’s the culture we’re soaked in. Can a Manchester derby ever mean the same to those of us who never grew up with it? What does it mean to live in Manchester? The sweat and toil of that industrial town is burned into the minds of those who grew up with it. How can any of us understand what that means after a two-week vacation to London for spring-break? Thus, can any of us truly understand the war being waged between United and City as we peer through the keyhole at that league across the pond? (I will give you this. When I was a kid, the keyhole was not in High Definition.)
However, New York vs Los Angeles? Seattle vs Portland? Houston vs Dallas? These are rivalries I understand. These are rivalries I grew up with. They may not have always been soccer-centric rivalries, but they’re palpable rivalries nonetheless.
The only thing Major League Soccer doesn’t have at this point is history. The league began its seventeenth season this last weekend. It’s a youthful league with all the problems that accompany an adolescent. It can be arrogant and naive and insecure and brash and undisciplined.
And it’s positively fantastic to be a part of developing that culture. MLS fans are a part of something that is still finding its identity. Watching games this last weekend, I was struck at how the atmosphere often felt a volatile mixture of Latin and European. Streamers, for god sakes. Smoke bombs. It was the unruly soccer atmosphere of many a South American game I watched as a kid through that keyhole. The chants. Echoes from European stadia caught on-the-fly during highlight shows on Galavision.
The US soccer culture is emerging and MLS fans are right in the middle of it – guiding it. Sometimes, we’re guiding it skillfully. Sometimes, we’re steering it as if we can’t even figure out how to get the car out of the driveway.
But the damn thing’s ours.
So, come this next Sunday, I’ll be making my way down to the local bar again and taking in Second Kick. And I’ll drink. And I’ll shout. And I’ll argue.
And I’ll embrace the beautiful lunacy of it. Because – finally – the lunacy belongs to me.
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