The best part of having a disappointing season? No one can accuse you of being a bandwagon fan.
Ever since I could walk, I was playing soccer, and ever since I could play soccer, I found a place where I could belong.
The first time that I watched a professional soccer game was an Open Cup game in 2004. The game was played on a warm summer night in a small field in St. Paul that may be familiar to some, James Griffin Stadium. That night two teams took that field that no longer exist today in the form they did then: the Minnesota Thunder and the San Jose Earthquakes. The Thunder are now gone and the Earthquakes moved to Houston before being revived a few years later. At the time, I was only vaguely aware that the Thunder existed; I was only 9 years old and I wanted to be Landon Donovan when I grew up. Even at 21, he was one of the biggest stars in American soccer. I don’t remember much about the actual game, but I do remember the atmosphere. We found seats on the top row of the bleachers, right in the middle of the field. Below us were rowdy fans, chanting and banging on drums. I had no idea who these people were at the time, but I assume they were the Dark Clouds, backing their Thunder, loud and proud. No matter what happened in the game, the bleachers shook with fervor. When the Thunder put the ball in the back of the net you could hear it for a half mile in any direction. The game finished 2-2, with the Quakes advancing on penalties. As we left the stadium, we noticed the Earthquakes team bus idling behind the stands. My dad pressed the match program into my hands, an intimidating picture of my idol on the cover, and nudged me forward. I barely managed to get the words “Can you sign this please?” out of my mouth. That night was my first taste of professional soccer, and I wasn’t about to let it go.
Around this time, Fox Soccer Channel became a thing. Every Saturday morning I would get up early, run past the signed Landon Donovan picture, now hanging on my wall, and join my dad in watching “that blue team from London” or “that red team from Liverpool.” I didn’t even know what a Liverpool was at the time. It wasn’t long before we had each grown to favor a team. He as a goalkeeper in college, an art that he would soon pass on to me. As student of goalkeeping, he valued defense and composure, traits personified by Petr Cech and Frank Lampard in Jose Mourinho’s first iteration of Chelsea. I became captivated by Thierry Henry’s mastery of the ball. It was a dream come true to see him play a few years ago when Arsenal came on their American preseason tour and played the Red Bulls in what would be one of his last games.
During David Beckham’s tour in MLS I again had the chance to see one of the best to play the game and my childhood idol grace a Minnesota pitch, this time a slightly more upscale venue, the late, great Metrodome. My soccer fanaticism grew around being a devoted fan of the game; I wanted to take in all it had to offer and check off names on a list like a art critic on their first trip to Paris. Landon Donovan. Check. David Beckham. Thierry Henry. Check.
As I got older, my fascination with the sport continued. Soon my closet was full of soccer gear from teams that I supported. When Landon Donovan came back from Europe to play for the LA Galaxy I became a Galaxy fan, ignoring the team just up the road. As his career wound down, my interest in MLS waned. The closest I got to supporting domestic soccer in that time period was attending a few Rochester Thunder games while that short-lived experiment lasted. A few of those outings included watching current New England forward Teal Bunbury cutting his teeth in the PDL in the college offseason.
When I left Minnesota to go to college, my love of the game came with me. I had a team that was minutes from my door that was respectable and the games were exciting. When I got the chance to go to Washington DC on the same day that Chelsea was playing Barcelona, I had to be there. Lionel Messi, Check. I spent three month studying abroad in Europe. Those three months just happened to coincide with the Euros. Each night of the week, and sometimes multiple times in the same night, I had new team to cheer for and new friends to raise a glass with. It didn’t matter who was playing, I just wanted to be a part of it, all for the love of the game. 24 hours after I was back on American soil Chelsea played Milan at US Bank Stadium. Eden Hazard. Check.
I found new friends that were just as crazy about soccer as I was. Together we found hooligans willing to get up at unfathomable hours to watch our favorite teams from across the pond. We could start the day off with soccer before breakfast and finish the day with the American Outlaws in the evening. Wherever I turned there was a community for soccer. I found friends that knew the pain of cheering for a losing team, friends that I could count on to meet once a week for pick-up games, and friends that would eventually reintroduce me to soccer in America.
I didn’t attend my first MLS game until I was dragged down to Kansas City during my sophomore year of college to watch Sporting KC. My first uninformed questions was, “Wait a minute...since when are they not the Wizards?” Nevertheless, I was welcomed with open arms into The Cauldron. Welcome to Blue Hell. There was no difference between being packed shoulder to shoulder with German, Czech, and English fans and the Sporting fans I was now singing with, except I actually knew what I was singing.
After graduating college I moved to Kansas City, straight into the arms of the people that I had cheered with many times during college. My friends that were Sporting fans couldn’t have been happier. They urged me to get season tickets and to pick up some Sporting gear to fit in. But I couldn’t. In my heart I was a Minnesotan and I wasn’t about to let that go just because I wasn’t living there anymore. Even though I don’t live there anymore I found a team that I felt like I could belong to. Not only that, I found a community I could belong to. One day I will make my pilgrimage back to the North and I am coming back to sing Wonderwall.
Because of this game and this team I am never alone, and forever a Loon.