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MLS boosters like to point out that attendance across the league is rising. They note that their games averaged 16,770 fans last year, highest since 1996, the inaugural season. They tell you it doesn't look as if that many fans are coming because many teams still play in cavernous football stadiums. All that may be true. But the reason I haven't been coming is that I like action.
I want a sport to seize my attention and keep it. My impression: In soccer you can marvel at a pretty goal or a diving save, then go to the bathroom, call your girlfriend, buy a plate of nachos and make it back to your seat before a team crosses midfield again.
On Day 3 of my trip I packed the minivan with three soccer-loving SI staffers and headed to Foxborough, Mass., to catch a doubleheader: FC Dallas versus the New England Revolution, followed by an exhibition between Venezuela and Brazil. If action was what I wanted, the second game was surely the ticket. Brazil, as soccerphiles tell you (over and over and over), practices the Beautiful Game. No team in the world is more artful or more fun to watch.
Well, maybe one. Turns out it was the first game that had me glued to my seat—specifically the play of Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis. He was everywhere in the second half, as Dallas, trailing 2--0, relentlessly assaulted his net. Reis dived to his left, dived to his right, faced down breakaways and leaped high to pull balls out of the air, preserving New England's win. Yeah, I thought. I'm beginning to get it. The buzz only built as hordes of chanting, flag-waving, drum-beating Brazilian fans poured into the stadium for the nightcap.
And that's when reality bit back. With two national teams playing, I could see that the passing and ball movement were crisper than in the MLS game. But they yielded fewer results: Both teams did impressive things with the ball but rarely brought the action to the net. The frequent lulls turned off the crowd. Fans talked about how many beers they planned to drink in the parking lot. Two men sitting in front of me spent 23 minutes of the first half arguing whether the game was being played on natural grass or field turf. (I Googled it for them; sod was laid over the field turf for this game.) It didn't help that Brazil hadn't come to play. The world's No. 2--ranked team looked listless, falling behind 63rd-ranked Venezuela and getting booed off the field at halftime. What's worse, they didn't even bring Ronaldinho, the one soccer player whose name I know. After the final horn sounded in Venezuela's 2--0 victory, the Brazilian fans continued their chanting and singing and drumming on their way out. As amped up as I was by the noise before the game, now it rang hollow. To me, what these fans really enjoyed was being Brazil fans, not watching their team play. It had to have been. No one could have enjoyed that.
COMPLAINT NO. 4
... Especially on TV
Here's a hypothetical: Your television is on the fritz, and only three channels are coming in clearly. The first is showing a marathon of The Young and the Restless, the second a Senate filibuster and the third soccer. Me, I'm spending the day in Genoa City. A good offside trap just doesn't play well on the tube. Still, I liked the prospect of watching the opener of Euro 2008 (Czech Republic versus Switzerland) at New York City's famed Nevada Smith's, "where soccer is religion" and the tournament is treated like the NCAAs. Could the presence of good beer, a high-stakes match and a motivated crowd make soccer watchable on the small screen? Maybe, but what I got was a 1--0 snoozer and a couple dozen catatonic Swiss. Nevada's did get the beer right.
Perhaps I caught the wrong game, but working on less than four hours' sleep, I wasn't about to stick around to test the theory. Soccer is about atmosphere, and the smattering of Czech fans who bore witness to their team's victory weren't celebrating like it was Liberation Day. "Come back when England plays," the bartender told me. "This place will be rocking."
COMPLAINT NO. 5