I (Still) Believe

Nearly fifteen years ago, during a high school band trip to NYC, I was part of a well-reasoned insurrection. We had one goal: to commandeer one of the charter buses on a trip a few miles down the road, where the Metrostars were playing the Columbus Crew in the what was the third week of the opening season of Major League Soccer. Our plot somehow worked, and I remember racing up the steps of the Meadowlands to find my seat behind one of the corner flags and watch actual first division soccer in my home country. The Metros lost 2-0, and my general disappointment ended up turning me into a DC United fan for the remainder of the season.

More than computers, soccer was the core part of my childhood: modified, junior varsity, indoor league, morning pickup games, private leagues, you name it. I wasn’t particularly good, I just loved to play. The first picture of myself that ever went online (and that Katie ever saw) was me in my JV uniform.

When my senior year of high school rolled around, after trying out for varsity, the coach gave me a dilemma: I could take a spot on the team, but I was 99.9% likely to never leave the bench. I weighed my chances, looked at my options, and opted to instead be Editor-In-Chief for the yearbook. I embraced my geek side and buried my soccer roots as deep as I could. For twelve years, my interest in soccer was casual at best, limited to games of Winning Eleven and occasionally collecting jerseys for European teams.

I’m not sure why the World Cup was different for me this year: the mostly solid play by the US team? The excellent accessibility to streaming games? Boredom and a desire for new hobbies? Hard to say. But a week after the US got knocked out in extra time, I remembered: MLS still existed, and if I wanted to see Landon Donovan play club soccer, perhaps they’d be coming to town. Sure enough, they had a game about 6 weeks out against the team that used to be the Metrostars.

On the day I bought the tickets, here was the breadth of my knowledge the New York Red Bulls:

  1. that an energy drink company I’m not particularly fond of had bought out the Metrostars a few years back and rebranded them in their own image
  2. they were terrible (frequent skimming the Gothamist sports section had led me to believe that them winning a game was a miracle)
  3. they had a new stadium that I had accidentally driven by, once, when lost.

So I bought the tickets with a reasonable expectation to come out a Galaxy fan, and briefly considered wearing my 1996 replica jersey (which, somehow, still fits me) to the game.

The result was mostly the same as that first MLS game I attended: New York lost, 1-0. But my reaction was a 180: I had fallen hard for the home team. Not just because of the gorgeous stadium that is three train stops from my apartment, not just because of the influx of name talent from Europe that happened shortly after I bought my tickets, and not just because of a awesomely obscene chant when the away team takes a goal kick. But there was also heart, promise, and devotion. There were rabid fans, and whole sections on their feet for the entire ninety minutes of the game. And I could find myself believing in this team who had been the worst in the league a year prior.

With only two months left in the season, I dove in as hard as I could. I blocked group tickets to the game against Kansas City, where Bouna Coundoul put on a clinic of goalkeeping. I learned the players names, the club history, and the chants of the South Ward. I blocked another group of tickets for a frustratingly tense draw with Real Salt Lake. I got to know my account rep and nearly put him on speed dial. I watched away games on MSG whenever I could. Katie and I ventured out for the last game of the regular season and went bananas when Joel Lindpere locked up first place in stoppage time.

I also got my first bitter tastes of sports fandom. I screamed at refs for blown calls, to the point where Katie accused me of turning into my father. I shook my head at trades and formation changes. I griped about players who underperformed. I grew an instant hatred for John Harkes, who I loved as a kid but can not stand as a color commentator.

Tonight was perhaps the most bitter taste of all: the team blew it at home, in front of over 22,000 fans, and lost not only the game but the playoff series with San Jose on aggregate. For a team that seemed like this could finally be the year they go all the way, it was about the worst result one could imagine.

I’m not going to sit here and point fingers. The heartbreak will pass, and may have already. More than any other feeling, I’m thankful for the last three months to remind me how much I loved the sport and how much I missed being a part of it, even just as a fan.

So I will keep wearing my RBNY scarf. I will wait by the phone for my account rep to call about seating selection for next year – I was the first non-renewal to put my deposit down for full season tickets. I will watch the post season trades and start carving out my schedule for next year to support frequent trips to Harrison.

And I will continue to believe that we will win.

See you next season.