This Way to Your Destination
This past Saturday was a gray one, and cold. Perfect soccer weather. As I circumnavigated the perimeter of the National Sports Center in Blaine looking for the entrance—this being my first time getting out to see United not at the Metrodome—I couldn’t help thinking back to playing intramural soccer in college. That team was one of the only ones I was ever on that was actually good. Our championship win came on a horrid cold Saturday in November that turned rainy and it was perfect. It was like being in a Nike commercial. I felt like a hero.
A hero who couldn’t dribble or shoot and was only good for slide tackling and clearances, but hey: sometimes you don’t get (or get to be) the hero you deserve.
United didn’t win a championship on Saturday, but still found their hero in Pablo Campos and moved up to second in the NASL standings with a 1-0 victory over the San Antonio Scorpions. Am I crazy to think that soccer seems to lend itself better to heroes than a lot of sports? Maybe it has to do with the fact that there is fundamentally just one way to score: put the ball in the back of the net, and you always get one point for it. Football has things worth six points and three points and two points and one point. Basketball has 3-pointers and 2-pointers and free throws. Players from goalies to strikers contribute in different ways but the end goal (pun intended) is always sinking the ball into that welcoming twine.
That drama—the tension-filled buildup that leads to a moment where a shot either goes wide or finds home—is a great reason to get into soccer.
Another is common to all sports: the slow, stepwise process of falling in love with a player’s game. It’s happened enough times for me in enough different sports that I can see it coming. For a little while now, it’s been happening with Calum Mallace. It’s not just the fact that he’s good, as evidenced by his naming to the NASL’s Team of the Week. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a soft spot for defensive midfielders, I think ever since Edgar Davids. Maybe it’s because his name’s so cool.
And yes, these are shallow reasons to like a player, but that’s where it starts. On Saturday he was all over the pitch, yet nearly always seemingly just where he was supposed to be. He was active on defense, yes, but he was also constantly looking to make plays and find gaps to send the ball upfield. He’s just an appealing player, the kind of player who plays the game in a way that feels right, that feels worthy.
That chance to fall in love with a particular player is a great reason to get into soccer.
But I also realized on Saturday that it largely doesn’t matter how much I get into soccer. I think a lot about the kind of impact that Minnesota United is having on soccer in the Twin Cities, on how they’re connecting with fans and reaching out to an established community, on how they’re building momentum. It’s great. But the truly important fans out there are the ones in cleats and sweats, the ones coming in groups of twos and threes with adidas or Nike bags slung over their shoulders by drawstrings, the ones who only come up to my elbows.
I’m not saying anything revolutionary, I’m aware. Ever since people started talking about the rise of soccer in America it’s been pinned on the hope that kids who grew up playing soccer would evolve into adult soccer fans. Despite being decades old, that hope is still fresh. And here’s the thing: fandom isn’t a place, it’s a journey, a path.
And every path needs not just a starting point, but waystations, places that open up avenues. Maybe a little boy likes Miguel Ibarra because he plays the same position he does on his soccer team. Maybe a little girl sees something in Mallace’s game that she likes (like I do) and it’s something that can make her work harder, be a better defender. Playing the game is the start of a journey for these kids in cleats and shorts. Minnesota United is a sign on the road that says, “This way to your destination.”
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