No, this was deep. This was significant.
“It was very European,” Califf said, dropping the ultimate compliment of respect on his new hometown fans.
"It's passion," he added. "Passion for the game. It's all about passion."Indeed, just two games into their existence and following the hometown debut in a “rented” stadium, the Philadelphia Union made such an impression on Califf and his teammates that it was if the home of the football Eagles had been transformed into Nou Camp in Spain or Stamford Bridge in England. With the Sons of Ben leading the charge in the north end stands, nearly 35,000 soccer fans were in full voice for more than 90 minutes.
Yeah, that’s right. Soccer fans. In Philadelphia.
Say what you want about the sport, its fans or its popularity in the United States. Go ahead and say it. Now prepared to be wrong, because you are. Soccer is very much a popular sport in America and in Philadelphia. In fact, MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters just that at Lincoln Financial Field during the debut home match for the Union. Better yet, Garber said, Philadelphia had exceeded the expectations the league had for the first-year expansion team already.
Just two games into its existence.
“Without the Sons of Ben this team doesn’t get launched,” Garber said.
That’s a pretty significant statement, too, because no one ever hears Bud Selig or Roger Goodell say a team was placed in a city because its fans were really into the sport and the team. Instead, those guys talk about bottom-line type things, market share and economic development. The MLS understands its niche and its fans. More importantly, the league isn’t about to insult the intelligence of the fans.
So don’t expect the MLS to attempt to wedge its way into the American sports gumbo with football, baseball, basketball and NASCAR. That’s just not going to happen. Don’t expect it to fight with other sports to get a piece of the cash flowing from TV deals either with weekly broadcast games of the week in order to be successful. That’s because American soccer has something much more important than anything that can be storyboarded into a flashy gimmick like the major four sports have…
Soccer chooses to go small. It’s just smarter that way.
Sure, they could have sold more tickets for the Union’s opener at the Linc on Saturday, but 35,000 was where it was capped. The new stadium expected to open next month in Chester will hold just 18,500 fans for soccer built with the sport in mind. That’s the best way to build to strength of the league, the commissioner says, by focusing on its base.
“We think you need a soccer-specific stadium,” Garber said, citing the desire to create an intimate atmosphere at the games with a scarcity of tickets, too. Perhaps if there aren’t as many tickets to be found, more people will want them?
More importantly, soccer has the really small ones—the kids.
Yes, the sport that is ignored by the American viewing public could very well be the most popular sport there is. Better yet, since the 1970s, when Pele, the great Brazilian soccer star came to America to play for the New York Cosmos in the old NASL, kids have been swarming to the fields only to leave the game behind for baseball, football and basketball when they reached adolescence.
But that’s not likely to be the case in the future. With fewer athletic scholarships trickling around, and the physical requirements that other sports carry to simply get a kid noticed, more and more specialization is the rage. Kids are finding their niche at an earlier age and painstakingly honing their craft.
Of course they burn out quicker, and the single-minded focus on one thing isn’t exactly mentally or physically healthy or even the best way to go about getting little Johnny that big scholarship to State U., but that’s a different argument for another day. The point is kids aren’t giving up on soccer for the glamour sports anymore.
Here’s a simple experiment to try out:
Drive by any suburban (and maybe even urban) playground, school athletic complex or grassy field. Once you get there, look for the kids and note what sport they’re playing. Nope, it isn’t hockey or football or even the great American Pastime. It’s soccer.
And it just isn’t at one school or the one little field around the corner. It’s everywhere. And they have sponsorships, too, from the giants like Nike and adidas as well as the local restaurants and car dealerships. Hey, that’s where the kids are. Get ‘em while they’re young.
Certainly, this isn’t anything new. Soccer has always been one of the first participatory sports that kids play just because it’s such a simple sport to learn. All you need is a ball, a net at both ends of a field and some kids to run around. That’s it. In fact, ask anyone from the age of 40 or younger what the first team sport they played as a child was and chances is it was soccer. If it wasn’t the first sport then it was definitely the second one.
Oh, but there’s more. Where I live, within spitting distance from Franklin & Marshall College’s athletic fields, soccer rules. Those fields, which are approximately a mile-and-a-half wide and a half-mile deep, and tucked between a residential neighborhood and a copse of woods, could be the most popular spot on campus. Or at least, the most well visited spot for the community-minded college.
A few years ago, those fields used to hold five soccer pitches, seven baseball diamonds, and a rugby field. There was always a flurry of activity on the weekends with kids and the parents filling up the neighborhood waiting for the chance that team after team could jump on one of the fields for soccer game.
But over time, it seemed as if the fields had become too quaint or maybe it was time to cut down a few trees to expand the grass back to the Conestoga Creek that winds its way through the neighborhood. There were just too many teams and too many kids standing around and not playing. Frustration grew and people started going elsewhere to play.
That is until Franklin & Marshall came up with a better plan.
It got rid of most of the baseball fields.
Now the kids play soccer all year round. Even in the summertime, camps of boys and girls teem from morning to dusk, tearing through the grass doing drill after drill while the summer days just wile away.
Somewhere else they’re playing baseball.