On Saturday I decided to take the short drive up I-95 to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Normally the towering 68,756 capacity stadium is home to the National (other) Football League’s New England Patriots. On this day, as with many other spring and summer days, this same stadium—albeit with a reduced capacity of 20,000—is home to the New England Revolution. Today, they lined up to face the Houston Dynamo in a Major League Soccer (MLS) Eastern Conference matchup.
Coming into the day the Revolution had been struggling with just four points (and just two goals, one an own goal) out of five matches to show for themselves. On the season’s first weekend New England were humbled 4-0 by this same Dynamo team in Houston; needless to say I was not optimistic for the outcome. At least it was a warm spring day, pushing seventy degrees, and in the end I was one of 14,259 fans in attendance. It felt more like 4,259 inside Gillette Stadium, however, since all upper-deck seating was closed off, as well as most of the middle deck and all of the seating behind one goal. Soccer just isn’t big in the United States of America, unfortunately.
MLS was only founded in 1996—with the Revolution as one of the league’s ten founding members. As football has struggled to gain a foothold in the nation’s sporting culture, attendances have steadily grown—from 14,898 in 2003 to 18,608 in 2013. In fact, MLS’ average attendance per game trumps that of one of the United States’ biggest sporting exports, the National Basketball Association (NBA). While such statistics are encouraging, it is unlikely that soccer will ever garner the kind of attention (American) football and baseball get.
And honestly, that’s OK with me. As someone interested in football culture, that kind of thing just does not exist in most of the United States (the colorful Pacific Northwest derby between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders is a rare exception). Since the culture won’t be there, just grab one of the ubiquitous overpriced Bud Lites, gorge yourself on equally overpriced fried food, and take in the day’s action where the average age of those in attendance—if you don’t count their legal guardians, of course—will make you feel like you’re in fourth grade. I, for one, took comfort in the fact that most of my fellow “fans” were probably not interested in the quality of play on the field—since they weren’t going to get it anyway. Some of the best action in the first half came when Kevin Alston, a New England defender, put a header narrowly by the post….his own post, that is. I looked around at that point. It didn’t seem that too many cared.
To my left were the “hard core” contingent of New England fans—standing in the supporters section dubbed “The Fort”, a nod to the militant nature of the team’s name which harkens back to the days of the American Revolution. They stood chanting half-heartedly while waving the flag of New England—a new symbol of the team. Most in this section sported piercings, skinny jeans, and sleeve tattoos—some males topped the look off with beards of rabbinical proportions. This was the hipster contingent, the newest wave of soccer fan in the United States. It is ironic that football could be a means of acquiring social capital in the Capitalist center of the world—many football fans outside the United States are from the lower classes, with political bents that hide no disdain for capital accumulation of any kind. While I can’t go into this new social construct in too much detail (this blog isn’t the place for it) the Wikipedia article on the hipster phenomenon is fairly amusing and has some useful links for those interested—Pierre Bourdieu gets a mention, and that makes it good in my book.
Then there were the kids—making up the majority of the fan base—who had been carted en masse, it seemed, to the stadium in one of the multitudes of shiny SUVs lining the parking lot, many sporting soccer ball shaped magnets on the back no less. Their guardians—suburban moms and dads—were busy running the gauntlet up and down the aisles, taking part in perhaps America’s largest sport by participant—consumerism. Each time they would implore their offspring to stay put (but how will the children work off the calories!?), before leaving only to return with cotton candy, trays of fried chicken, French fries, hamburgers, Nachos, personal pizzas, Coca-Colas, and waters–wait, hold the waters! One of the stadium’s water “hawkers” peddled his bottles with a classic Boston accent: “Get ya wattuh heeeeeeyuh, wattuh heeeeeeeyuh! Natuh’s own soda, zero fat, zero calories, get ya delicious wattuh!!”. There were no takers—except for me.
I paid my four (4!) dollars for an Aquafina which the hawker dutifully opened for me. I assumed this five star service was part of the price, but I learned how wrong I was when I got the full bottle handed back to me, cap-less. The hawker recognized my questioning look and said, “Sarry, stadium pawlicy”. Stadium policy? So what, the small plastic cap on this water bottle is going to be what keeps me from hurtling my four-dollar bottle onto one of the Houston player’s heads? I’ve been to a few matches, and I can tell you right now that the cap is NOT the lynchpin of stadium security. Now, the bottle itself? Sure, that can be the lynchpin—they’re forbidden in Turkish stadiums, for instance. If any readers will be going to Gillette Stadium to take in a Revolution match in the future, here’s my advice—BYOC: Bring Your Own Caps. I never got a pat-down at the entrance; they’d never know! Sadly I did not participate in BYOC on this occasion, so I sat my full bottle down in the cup-holder in front of me, as all the germs from fourth grade classrooms across New England wafted into my water unobstructed. Meanwhile on the pitch the Houston Dynamo’s attack kept making forays into the Revolution end, similarly unobstructed, for the rest of the first half.
The uninspiring half ended 0-0 with both teams squandering opportunities—and the powers-at-be at US Soccer wonder why Americans think soccer is boring. With the referee’s whistle the seats around me emptied instantaneously as patrons engaged in a coordinated charge on the concessions stands. If the New England strike force had been this determined on the pitch, it would be 5-0 by now. While price mark-ups at stadiums are nothing new, I marveled at the money that was being spent—where is it coming from? My ticket itself—the cheapest available—was 25 dollars. The water—as mentioned—was 4 dollars. Bud Lite—itself a step above water—was a whopping 9 dollars, while Papa Ginos Pizza was 8.50 (pretty good deal, huh?). When multiplied by four for a family of four, a simple trip for 90 minutes of action becomes much more than 90 dollars. And I wont count the gas costs which fuel the soccer ball magnet-sporting shiny four wheel-drive chariots of suburbia. No economic downturn here!
Meanwhile cheerleaders were throwing rolled-up t-shirts into the first four rows of the stands while grounds men dutifully watered the brand new FieldTurf surface. This is the first game on the stadium’s new surface, a red-letter day of sorts. I welcomed the development since it meant that soccer lines were not competing with the remnants of American football lines that normally mar the field of play during Revolution matches at Gillette Stadium. Indeed, many American soccer commentators have often pointed to residual American football marks on fields across MLS as one of the things hindering the game’s development Stateside.
Once the second half started the Revolution got going, and put together some good attacking moves in the first ten minutes of the second period. While this may have had something to do with the half time team talk, I think it had more to do with the stadium. In the first half the team was attacking the goal on the far end of the field—the one with a tarp advertising Budweiser covering the seating behind the goal. As a player it would be difficult to get up for a game if you felt as if you were playing behind closed doors—indeed, all the Revolution fans were concentrated at the other end of the field. This half, however, the Revolution were attacking the goal in front of “The Fort”. The change was clearly for the better, as “The Fort” galvanized the attack and sufficiently rattled Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall.
The Revolution kept coming and would have had a goal in the 60th minute were it not for some selfish play by striker Teal Bunbury. In my opinion, Diego Fagundez had every right to feel aggrieved when Bunbury chose to shoot through two defenders instead of pass it wide to Fagundez, who was at the corner of the penalty area with no one in front of him. As my hopes for seeing a goal dwindled I became fixated on a man standing and pointing at the referee, a normal act in any soccer game, only this one was wearing . . . a horse mask. The things we see in MLS.
Just then, like a lighting strike, came what most of us—except perhaps a few of the kids focused on the Revolution’s Foxy mascot (literally a man in a fox suit–why a fox I do not know) came to see. It was the 68th minute, and defender Kevin Alston’s first career goal in MLS after six seasons. It came nearly a year to the day (April 8, 2013) that Alston took a leave of absence from the team to undergo treatment for a form of Leukemia—cheers to Mr. Alston for coming back better than ever.
With a 1-0 lead, the Revolution settled into a defensive mindset for the next twenty minutes, which is the team’s norm under current head coach Jay Heaps—himself a successful former Revolution defender. I ignored the multitude of distractions swirling around me—parents herding their children towards the exits in a bid to beat traffic and hipsters looking to grab a final beer—and focused on the final minutes. After all—you never leave until the final whistle. I learned that in Tallinn, Estonia.
As Houston poured forward in hopes for an equalizer they left their defenses open. A long New England clearance in stoppage time found its way to the edge of the Houston penalty area and when ‘keeper Tally Hall came out to clear New England’s Honduran forward Jerry Bengtson stole the ball, rounded Hall and threaded the ball through two defenders into the back of the net. 2-0, and the crowd goes wild. I found myself fist-pumping in glee at New England’s first victory of the season—after all, I’m a fan too. “The Fort” jumped into action, waving their “flags of New England”, along with a conspicuously non-Revolution colored flag—the sky blue of the Boston Athletic Association, organizers of the Boston Marathon since 1897.
With the one year anniversary of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings coming up, it was fitting. It’s also a good time to remember former Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis, who heroically saved his father in-law’s life in the aftermath of the bombing. Unfortunately, a segment on ESPN’s Sportscenter’s April 14th 2014 telecast remembering the bombings missed this. They focused on the role of Boston sports in the aftermath of the bombings—the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, Boston Celtics basketball team, and Boston Red Sox baseball team where all acknowledged, but there was no mention of another Boston team—the Revolution—despite the crucial role played by one of their own players in saving the life of another. But, that is soccer in the United States—flying just below the radar.
All in all it was a good Saturday, and I hope that any American soccer fans reading this and who live near an MLS franchise choose to attend at least one match this season. Sure, the quality might not be up to “European standards” but such “Euro-snobbery” won’t get soccer in this country anywhere. If you call yourself a true soccer fan then go out and support your local team, bolster their attendances, and help keep your team afloat. Yes, I’m a die-hard Galatasaray fan and attend all the matches I can when in Istanbul, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing an amateur match of my local side Cesmespor, and it certainly doesn’t keep me from following the team from where I was born, good old New England.
The Stadium’s Capacity is Reduced for Football (Soccer) Matches
As a player it would be difficult to get up for a game if you felt as if you were playing behind closed doors
The Hardcore Contingent in “The Fort”!
Horse Heads and Fourth Graders–Welcome, to MLS
The Flags of New England on Display
Salute to Kevin Alston’s First Career MLS Goal