I BET YOU think soccer is as American as cricket and as thrilling as the Westminster dog show. All that kicking and heading, and no hands? Maybe that's why Zinedine Zidane dropped Marco Materazzi with a head butt in the 2006 World Cup final. He didn't realize he could use those things attached to his shoulders to throw a punch. And games that end 0--0? (Sorry, nil-nil.) The zealots will tell you that soccer is ready to become America's fifth major sport. In my mind, it already is. If you're too slow to play basketball, too scared for baseball, too small for football and too clumsy for hockey, you turn to soccer.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have tried my feet at the game. Let's just say it didn't take. It was 1988, and I was in second grade at Sacred Heart Elementary in Kingston, Mass. My team went 0--9. My father was the coach. I was the goalkeeper. After the season the team parents gave my dad a book on how to coach soccer. "I didn't need it," he tells me now. "I already knew how to win. Don't put you in goal." I hadn't watched a soccer game since.
My feelings toward the sport—which, as you may have guessed, I have shared on occasion—convinced my editors that I was the perfect candidate to hop in the minivan. The idea was a five-day, six-game odyssey along the East Coast, a trip that would allow me to see some of the world's best teams (Brazil! Argentina!) and check out what the U.S. had to offer (MLS, the national team). Hey, I know all about how MLS is expanding, and I see all those little kids in Manchester United shirts scurrying around my neighborhood. The sport is all over my cable system. But I just can't get next to soccer. Am I wrong?
That's why I'm making this trip: to find out if soccer really is as god-awful as I think it is—or to discover that I haven't given it enough of a chance.
COMPLAINT NO. 1
American Fans Lack Passion
Two weeks ago, if you'd asked me about La Barra Brava, I would have guessed it was a Latin boy band. Turns out, with over 1,000 members representing more than 30 countries, the Barra is considered MLS's largest, most diverse and most rabid fan group. Great, I thought when I learned I'd be hanging out with them in Washington, D.C., for United's game against the Houston Dynamo on June 4. The David Hasselhoff fan club.
My first indication to the contrary came well before kickoff. A driving rain had turned a four-hour trip from Manhattan into six, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd get to see my first soccer game at all. I texted Rob Gillespie, one of Barra's elders, to confirm that the pregame tailgate had been washed out. His answer was succinct: RAIN OR SHINE.
It's amazing what Barra members can do during a tornado watch. They can eat, even when their rolls have turned to mush and the charcoal flames are reduced to a flicker. They can drink, even if their keg cups contain less beer than monsoon. And they can sing. Oh, can they sing. First Vamos United. Then the Barra Brava song. Soon I'm frantically scrolling through my BlackBerry for the lyrics and singing along—it's addictive.
The Barra takes advantage of a break in the rain to head into RFK Stadium. Rather than seek refuge beneath the overhanging stands members march directly to their section at midfield. They cluster together behind a massive black banner, even though the stadium isn't lacking for seating. As the players emerge, the chants begin again. Everyone on Houston sucks. The refs suck. Cobi Jones sucks. (Never mind that Jones, I learn, played in L.A., retired last year and is not in attendance.)