The international soccer experience

Posted: October 14, 2013 by terryvandrovec in Uncategorized
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On Friday evening, I became a proper soccer fan; I have the scarf to prove it – red with blue fringes and “Home of the Brave” in white. It’s actually scarf and a pro-America banner and a keepsake all in one, the giveaway for every fan at the World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Jamaica at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.

I was there, my first real soccer experience. And it was fantastic, one of the most vibrant sporting events I’ve ever been to for work – I’m a sports reporter by trade – or recreation. That’s despite the fact there wasn’t much on the line; the U.S. already had clinched a trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

For starters, the venue was immaculate. Apparently, $200 million goes a long way when divvied up over just 18,500 seats. The size seems key – large enough to feel like a big deal yet small enough to avoid the kind of overcrowding issues that are inherent at, say, a Big Ten football stadium. There are no bad seats in the square space. We were about eight rows up behind one of the goals, and could see details like the spin of the ball, the fresh divots in the grass, the rage spewing from the mouth of U.S. keeper Tim Howard. I’ve decided that his version of Tourette’s is the one that causes people to swear uncontrollably because dude was getting after teammates during breaks.

TV scored his first soccer scarf at a World Cup qualifier in Kansas City, Kan.

TV scored his first soccer scarf at a World Cup qualifier in Kansas City, Kan.

Also, the former Livestrong Park has ample (if pricey) food and drink options, free WiFi and power stations for phones and two gigantic HD video boards – the kind that even look sharp in pictures. Plus, it’s in a location that’s off the grid, neighbored by a NASCAR track, a minor-league baseball park and a bunch of restaurants, hotels and shops. The lack of residents in the area means you sort of have the run of the place. Open containers? No problem. Jaywalking? By all means, please.

All told, it’s easy to see why MLS club Sporting KC has become a popular entertainment option in the BBQ capital of ‘Merica.

Still, this event soared because of the people, primarily the American Outlaws, a group of diehard and organized U.S. soccer fans. The group is based in Lincoln, Neb., but has more than 100 chapters nationwide. Technically, I’m one of them. I paid the $25 dues earlier this year in order to get a pretty respectable shirt and early access to tickets for this event. (Totally worth it, by the way.)

To be clear, I’m not on their level. These guys and gals are every bit as passionate and vocal and active as, say, the Cameron Crazies at Duke basketball game. They’re more than soccer hooligans in the traditional, scary sense; the only shenanigans I witnessed pertained to littering and a couple of four-letter word chants.

They hosted a massive tailgate party starting five hours before kickoff. Free food, BYOB. People just hung out in a parking lot – no charge for that, either – and cooked and ate and joked and cheered before embarking on a mass march to the stadium. Some kicked around soccer balls. The Red Bull car showed up armed with free drinks. It was every bit as festive as any football tailgate I’ve seen, just on a less expensive level – no pimped out big rigs or bacon-wrapped shrimp. This was a younger, humbler crowd. In fact, nobody made fun of my AO starter kit even though it was lame compared to the stars-and-stripes feety jammies worn by a few.

The real work began once inside the stadium, a few AO alpha dogs positioned in the first row in order to stand, face the crowd and lead an array of chants from roughly an hour before the match until the triumphant end. There were almost no breaks, people singing and shouting and clapping and stomping and bouncing on command. Being a rookie, I didn’t know any of the words before the match, but I knew most of them by the end. It was hard not to get swept up in the mix of sports fervor and patriotism, especially since virtually everyone in the stadium was supporting the same side – (in Borat voice) the U.S. and A. There were American flags planted throughout the stadium to be waved by anybody.

The second half was better than the first for a variety of reasons. By then, I’d figured out how all of this worked and become less self conscious. (Having been a sports journalist for half my 34 hours, I’ve purposely forgotten how to be a fan.) More importantly, the Yanks broke through with two goals – both right in front of us. The first seemed to trigger some sort of beer explosion, ale flying through the warm night air; the second incited a couple smoke bombs, for reasons I’ve yet to figure out.

If not for those goals, my favorite moment of the match would have been when my new pal, an honest to goodness British import and veteran of two World Cups, tossed out a wanker sign in reaction to a blown opportunity by the U.S. Hilarious.

I’d never before met Simon even though we live in the same small city and have some mutual friends. Same with most of the other guys in our group. And the dude that rode along with me to the game from Sioux Falls, a car pool set up just hours earlier. Stuff like that is out of character for me; I prefer to quietly observe before putting myself out there when it comes to meeting new people. Yet in these circumstances, camaraderie seemed to be the rule, a part of the experience. It was all-inclusive; no soccer snobbery here.

If only Tim Meadows – or Leon Phelps, if you prefer – had received that memo. We bumped into the comedian and former SNL cast member at our hotel before the game and tried to make nice, but he didn’t seem all that interested in hanging out with us.

Oh, well. Maybe he’s just not into scarves.

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Comments
  1. […] Finally, in October, Terry traveled to Kansas City for a World Cup qualifier: Stuff like that is out of character for me; I prefer to quietly observe before putting myself out there when it comes to meeting new people. Yet in these circumstances, camaraderie seemed to be the rule, a part of the experience. It was all-inclusive; no soccer snobbery here. […]

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