So my college buddies and I went on a soccer road trip. But first we went to Gettysburg.
A hallowed battlefield and the chaotic North American soccer scene might not seem like connected topics, but they are. Kinda. Sorta.
Most Americans know something about Gettysburg: Big battle in the American Civil War, Little Round Top, Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, Pickett’s Charge, High Water Mark, Four-Score-And-Seven Years Ago, yada yada yada.
But what a lot of people who aren’t history geeks don’t know is that the more people talked about Gettysburg during and after the war, the more interest in the battle grew. Consequently, Gettysburg was always a significant event, but it became far more important over time. And whenever events take on viral importance, lots of people place an enormous value on “shaping the story.”
Bottom line: When you visit Gettysburg National Military Park, you are walking (well, mostly driving) over ground where a horrible battle took place between July 1 and July 3, 1863. But you don’t see the battle. What you see are monuments and official narratives — the physical results of more than a century of spin, lobbying, fund-raising and story-shaping.
And if you suspect that’s mostly a competition between North and South, you’re mostly missing the point. The real game in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was between rival states, units and commanders, each interest desiring to secure and expand its share of glory, wealth and power.
See where I’m going with this?
Visiting Gettysburg is an awful lot like consuming the media that surrounds our politics, our business — even our favorite sports. It’s just that instead of watching ESPN or listening to the spin from the talking heads after a political debate, the contest to control the history of Gettysburg is forever frozen in bronze and granite. So you see it. It’s really all you see.
Something happens, and then everyone squabbles over praise and blame. The events change, but the human impulse to fit everything into a neat little story — preferably one that suits our personal interests — is practically universal. We used to carve it in stone. Now we post it with pixels.
So one could say that there are no absolutes in history. That objectivity is impossible. That there are no indisputable events, no simple declarative statements that we can make about the past.
And you’d be wrong. Because I’m here to testify — with absolutely zero bias or irony whatsoever — that the fans in the American Outlaws section at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the July 21st 5-1 dismantling of El Salvador were the greatest fans in the history of United States soccer and witnessed the greatest win in the history of the USMNT.
Also, 100 valiant but outnumbered Timbers Army heroes, trapped in a crowded Philadelphia stadium concourse by a lightning delay, defiantly stood their ground and delivered the most inspiring defense of their club that anyone has ever witnessed, anywhere. Fans of the Philadelphia Union were so emotionally overwhelmed by the fearless spirit of the Portland fans that dozens of them wept openly, cast down their SOB scarves, and moved to Oregon.
See? No hype. Just the facts.
On to Philadelphia
Robert Huffman — the software-writing bastard from Portland who converted me from a casual soccer fan to a ravenous consumer of all things related to the Portland Timbers in August 2010 — made the trip up to Gettysburg with me on Thursday, July 18, from his parents’ house in North Carolina. On Friday we picked up our other former college roommate, John Sloop — currently an associate dean at Vanderbilt University in Nashville — in Philadelphia.
The next morning, while waiting for beer-thirty to roll around, the three of us went for a walk around the Old Town section of Philly. We promptly ran into Portland GM Gavin Wilkinson, who was out looking for a place to have coffee.
I didn’t immediately recognize Wilkinson (or “Gavin” as we call him now) and figured he was just another Portland fan. But as we approached each other with our hands out for the usual “Hey, We Like The Same Team” secret handshake, I recognized him as That Idiot Who Traded Troy Perkins For That Has-Been Donovan Ricketts. In the year since the trade, that original title has been replaced with a new one: The Genius Who Got Ricketts From Montreal For Some Other Keeper Portland Used to Have.
So the four of us chatted for about a minute, I snapped a picture for Robert, and then Gavin went off to do something important. Afterwards, I realized I blown a great opportunity. I could have asked him questions. I could have written down the names of the great prospects on the Battery roster on the back of my business card and handed it to him. Instead I just said “Great hire,” in reference to first-year Timbers Coach Caleb Porter, and shook the poor man’s hand awkwardly like five or six times.
Make my funk the pre-funk
The advisory from the Timbers Army on PPL Park in Chester, PA, was indelible: Chester is a shit-hole. “Do not pre-funk in Chester,” the TA email warned in a tone the State Department might take if it were run by bureaucrats sporting fixed-gear bicycles and ironic mustaches.
John forwarded that message to a friend from Philadelphia for her opinion. She concurred. “I would not pre-funk, funk or post-funk in Chester,” she replied.
Hence, the Timbers Army pre-funk occurred in a micro-brew-pub in Old Town, where we were joined by about 30 very cool young people dressed in Timbers gear. People came and went and there was absolutely no singing or chanting, despite John’s vocal insistence that one of the kids get the ball rolling. And by “kids” I mean men in their thirties who kept trying to polite ignore him.
We were joined at our table by Paul — a professor of theology — and his wife, Jan. I figured out their profession when Paul, who was clearly casting propriety over his shoulder after downing several high-gravity beers, dropped an adventuresome f-bomb in conversation. Jan said “Oh Paul!” and swatted playfully at his arm in admonition for him being so bad.
I’m a preacher’s kid myself, so I immediately asked “Are you clergy?” and Jan said something along the lines of “Yes! How could you tell?”
Anyway, we took our leave of the Old Town pre-funk and drove on to our next hotel in beautiful downtown Chester. Normally this would have involved more drinking, or wandering around. But Chester — while not quite the war zone we’d been warned about — still isn’t exactly a pedestrian-friendly destination for tourists in cute little matching outfits. So we hung around and updated our social media until it was time to jump on I-95 and make the run into PPL Park.
So while Chester per se isn’t exactly Soho on a Saturday, the parking lot (Lot B, to be precise) at PPL Park wasn’t a bad place at all. There were Sons of Ben and Timbers Army members milling around, tailgating, talking friendly smack and just generally doing the things you’re used to seeing in parking lots.
After stopping by the Sons of Ben tent beside the stadium, where the guys welcomed us to Philly and gave the Timbers Army section at JELD-WEN Field a little love (“This conversation would be very different if you were Red Bulls fans,” one guy said), we headed on over to the special gate where the stadium staff was waiting for us.
‘Let it rain, let it pour…’
So the first thing you notice when you meet the stadium staff at the away-fans entrance is that they don’t want you to die. They’re concerned that it might happen, but they’re sincerely hoping that it won’t. Again, this might not apply to Red Bulls fans.
Anyway, for our own protection, we were rounded up, given instructions, and then taken through security — which was a little less thorough than getting into high school each morning on the South Side of Chicago, but a little more thorough than the customs search in some Caribbean countries.
And this posed a bit of a problem for me, since I’m not used to stadium security that requires emptying my pockets and submitting to a comprehensive frisking. Which is why it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be carrying my usual lock-blade pocket knife.
And frankly, I just wasn’t in the mood to donate by pocket knife to the security staff at PPL Park. So I slipped it into my low-rise sock and took my pat-down like the bad-ass gangster that I am (at heart, anyway). Which meant that I entered Chester’s fine soccer-specific stadium feeling like a menacing inmate who has just successfully smuggled a shiv into a high-security lockdown. Damn right. You don’t wanna mess with this Timbers Army soldier. Yeah (gang-sign).
So we were shown “our special stairway,” and the concessions stand we were to use. And frankly, even though their concern for us was sweet, after a while it all felt a bit much. Look, we get it — Philly fans are tough. But that doesn’t make them homicidal maniacs. Then we were marched up the stairs and installed in the “visitors’ section,” which was located in the extreme southeastern corner of the stadium, in close proximity to the Riverside home of the Sons of Ben, one of North America’s greatest supporters groups.
And then a soccer match broke out.
It was, for the most part, a rather dull soccer match. Portland didn’t have much trouble possessing the ball, but Philadelphia kept its defensive shape and refused to give the Timbers much room. Of course, a byproduct of that defensive emphasis was that the Union rarely got much going in their attacking third. Not that any of this mattered. I’m now convinced that you go to a Timbers Away match to represent the Army and the club, not the watch the game.
We started the match with a tifo. Seriously. We had two banners that we held up, and it would have been cool, too, except the people with the top banner kinda got the angle wrong, making their part of the message visible to passing airliners, but not the stadium. And then there was the truncated chant list, which we ran through multiple times.
We even did Tetris once, although two young East Coast Timbers fans at the end of our row didn’t understand the “everybody shifts left and right” thing and refused to budge.
Anyway, the first half ended with severe weather rolling in from the South, and when the stadium crew spotted lightning just across the Delaware River, they asked everyone seated in an exposed area to evacuate downstairs to the concourses.
Which meant that our escorts’ worst nightmare was about to come to life. Real Timbers fans and real Union fans were about to mingle, unsupervised, in the presence of beer.
You’re Not Singing Over There
So the Timbers Army East Coast Platoon, roughly 100 strong, marched down the stairs, singing and waving flags. And for roughly the first 10 minutes of our 45-minute lightning delay, we were surrounded primarily by a bunch of confused Philly fans trying to find a beer and go to the men’s room.
Then it got good.
This is how it went: From our right, generic fans who had no idea who we were, but gave us a little bit of Philly “Atty-tood” to represent their city. From our left, the ranks of the Sons of Ben began surging into eveyr available inch of space, rushing like all good supporters should to answer an invading group’s challenge. The forces on the right were a militia, a rabble. The forces on the left, an organized, drilled army. The TA scattered our opponents on the right, but as the chant-fight wore on, we could not hold off the thousands of SOBs who filled the concourse and defended their turf.
It was a blast from start to finish.
If you watch the video, shot by a late-arriving Son of Ben, you won’t hear the Timbers Army except in snippets. He’s in the middle of the mass of supporters who arrived to shout us down, and their chants of “PHIL-AH-DELF-YUH!” were truly impressive (The TA response: “CHESS-TER! CHESS-TER!”) But as someone who stood at the intersection of the two groups for the duration of the event (that’s me in the green cap, standing in front of that steel I-beam), let me just testify that we gave as good as we got. We were simply outnumbered by at least 10-to-1 after a few minutes.
Were their anxious moments? Well, somebody ripped one of our flags off its stick and ran off with it, and at that moment all it would have taken was one asshole from Portland to tip things into ugly. Fortunately, our guys kept their cool and their sense of perspective. And yes, stadium security rushed in a line of Chester cops, who tried to take up positions in front of us (said one Philly guy, “One of the things that keeps everyone in line at our matches is that nobody wants to spend the night in a Chester holding cell”).
But at no time did I ever feel threatened, and there was a lot of good-natured, occasionally sloshy trash-talk along the front lines. The lines, in fact, were permeable, with fans wandering back and forth, asking questions, posing for pictures, and generally soaking up the fact that something spontaneous and passionate was occurring. “I’m glad you were here,” one Son of Ben said as we shook hands and headed back to our seats. “Without this we’d have been standing around holding our dicks for 45 minutes.”
The Timbers Army in Portland brings 5,000 fans to every match, and they stand and sing for the full 90. We did the same thing in Philly on a smaller scale. And while the Sons of Ben can’t match Portland’s sold-out-90-minute-organization — not yet, anyway — that’s no slam on them. Portland is Soccer City USA. The Union are way down the franchise food chain in Philly. The Sons of Ben and PPL Park were two of the factors that led us to choose this East Coast game, and both were great advertisements for the rising tide of North American soccer.
The match ended in a scoreless draw, and the Timbers players — led by captain Will Johnson — marched over to stand at the corner of the pitch and thank the TA for its traveling support. In that moment, I let myself revel in the illusion that I was part of something larger, that I was more than just a middle-aged guy on a road trip. And it was suh-weet.
Gold Cup at M&T Field
After our adventure in Chester, the three of us made the 83-mile drive down to Baltimore on Sunday, July 21, to watch the Gold Cup Quarterfinals between the United States and El Salvador and Honduras and Costa Rica.
The USMNT has since won the Gold Cup, besting Panama in Chicago on July 28, so you’ll likely remember the exuberant 5-1 cha-cha the USA did all over El Salvador — a beating made a bit more enjoyable by the heartbreaking stoppage-time goal El Salvador put on the USA’s U-23s in Nashville last year to knock our guys out of the Olympics. That tournament gave me my first glimpse of several of the players on this year’s Gold Cup squad, including Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud.
Both of whom would score on that beautiful, overcast, adrenaline-soaked Sunday afternoon.
There are a few things worth saying about our host city. Not all are kind.
The Inner Harbor is over-rated: Yes, I can see how it’s better than what was around before the urban renewal project got funded. But if you’re from Charleston, going to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is like taking a trip to a mall somewhere. We can overpay for lunch at a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in our own over-rated part of town, thank you very much.
Camden Yards is as cool as advertised, yet strangely sterile: Baltimore is a dirty-looking place, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. Wrigleyville in Chicago is a shit-hole, too, but it’s also a place people love to visit. The area around Camden Yards is so clean — especially by Baltimore standards — that its hard to believe you’re at a Major League ballpark. It’s like baseball Disneyland.
If you’re trying to attract out-of-town soccer fans to your sports bar, in a row of sports bars, pay some guy to stand out front with a sign that says “CHEEP-ASS BEER.” This absolutely worked in our case. Apparently the bar next door, Pickles, is beloved by people from Baltimore. But the collapsing, slanted-floored place where we wound up — whatever it was called — sold us two cans of beer for $4.
When you’re in town for an international soccer match, you’re part of a big tribe: We met Hondurans who not only showed us pictures of themselves with Roger Espinoza on their phones, they showed us Roger Espinoza’s phone number. We met plenty of Americans, too — and when you’re all wearing the same dorky clothes, it’s apparently totally OK to go up and talk to anyone wearing the same outfit.
People from Portland can’t walk around in July on the East Coast without shade: The best thing about the day was watching Robert hug every bit of available shade in downtown Baltimore.
We arrived a bit late at M&T Field, the home of the Baltimore Ravens, but not so late that we missed the kickoff, making our way through long lines at the gate and hustling through the crowded concourse to emerge into a stunning scene: An enormous football stadium, packed to the sky with screaming soccer fans. As we tucked into the American Outlaws section behind the south goal, I felt like I’d left the United States entirely.
All told, the official attendance exceeded 70,000. But rather than focus on how awesome it is that you can sell out an NFL stadium for an international soccer match, the editors at The Baltimore Sun decided that the big story was that fans of the USA were outnumbered “at home.” The next morning’s paper featured a front-page photo of a joyous US fan under the headline “A Minority Opinion.”
Well, allow me to retort, asshole.
Sure, there were plenty of people in the stadium supporting the three other countries represented that afternoon. But the thing the Sun editors didn’t understand was that a high percentage of those “foreign” fans were actually immigrants to the United States. That’s why the thousands of Hondurans who surrounded the American Outlaws section spent that Sunday cheering for the Yanks against El Salvador. Because while their primary team allegiance might be to the country of their birth, against everyone else, they cheer with us. Viva los Estados Unidos!
So, what’s it like to be in a stadium with 70k soccer fans? It’s so exciting that you sing yourself hoarse for your country. You hug complete strangers when the US scores. When miffed El Salvadoran fans in the upper decks began tossing their drinks down at us, we stood and motioned to them to throw some more. When the skies opened and the rain began to fall, we soaked it up like a gift from heaven, not an inconvenience.
And when the US Men came over to the American Outlaws section and thanked us for the vocal support, and the AO showered them with more love in return? Yeah. That didn’t suck, either.
We got to see Landon Donovan punch his ticket for a return to Jurgen Klinnsman’s A-Team. We got to see young guys step up and make their case. We got to party with people from other countries, and met strangers we’d later run into in unexpected places. We got to be American soccer fans, all in one place, all together.
Baltimore: ‘We’re Not Chester?’
So, let’s be clear about one thing: We did not go to Baltimore to pick up hookers.
The desk guy at our downtown hotel clearly didn’t get this memo, and when we got back from the match and John asked him to point us toward a place where we could get a drink, he directed us toward East Baltimore Street. “There are a lot of places down there, if you walk a couple of blocks,” he said. “You’ll find what you’re looking for.”
And so I tipped the man and we strolled off into the night — straight into a scene from The Wire. Because while there were “some places” a few blocks down East Baltimore Street, they were all strip clubs. So, seriously, no matter what the cops say…
After John got propositioned by a surprisingly cute prostitute (new Baltimore tourism slogan? Baltimore: Surprising Cute Hookers), we decided to get the hell out of the Red Light District, and spent the rest of the evening coming down off our post-match high in a dingy hotel bar several blocks away on the other side of our budget hotel. When John told his wife about our experience down the street, she observed to him over the phone that if we hadn’t looked so shabby, the desk clerk probably would have recommended a woman who would have come to our room and saved us all the trouble. So apparently it does pay to dress for the job you want.
Anyway, that’s pretty much where this story ends. The next morning we walked through a slummy section of Baltimore to see Edgar Alan Poe’s grave, then watched a comically inept attempted carjacking through the window of the chicken restaurant where we stopped for lunch. O Baltimore!
After dropping John off at the airport, I drove Robert back to his parents’ place in Mount Airy, N.C., and then made it the rest of the way home to Charleston by 1 a.m.
Driving through Western North Carolina on the last leg of my trip gave me a lot of time to think about this new obsession of ours. After all, when the three of us roomed together at Appalachian State University in the early 1980s, the only soccer fan any of us knew was my previous roommate, Neal Valentine, the guy who originally introduced me to the sport. John and Robert were annoying Atlanta Braves fans in those days, and John and went back on forth talking NFL trash for about two decades (Seriously. The man supports the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for crying out loud). How on earth did we all wind up converting to this new religion so late in life?
Then again, what does it say that we couldn’t get anyone out to a bar to watch a USA match just a few months ago, and last night our new Charleston Chapter of American Outlaws hosted at least 50 fans at Madra Rua Park Circle for the Gold Cup Final?
North America remains the most soccer-resistant market on Planet Earth, but it’s a sleeping giant that is beginning to wake up and smell the Peet’s Coffee. There’s no telling what it will grow up to be, but right now, in this moment before it grows beyond anyone’s ability to shape and define it, we have an opportunity to influence what it will become. To create a culture of North American soccer that will mature across generations of players and fans.
So as I crossed into South Carolina, the thought rattling through my brain was, “Where do we go next?”
TOP IMAGE: Robert Huffman (center) and John Sloop (right) celebrate a United States goal in the American Outlaws section during the United States’ 5-1 Gold Cup Quarterfinals win over El Salvador on July 21 in Baltimore. Huffman and Sloop met as freshmen at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, in 1981, and later roomed with Dan Conover. None of the former roommates was much of a soccer fan until Huffman moved to Portland. Today, Huffman is considered the Typhoid Mary of North American soccer, with roughly half a dozen fans and one website attributed to his insidious recruitment efforts. Dan Conover photos.