I've never been a huge soccer fan. I don't actually have anything against the sport. A lot of the top-tier games I've seen on TV seem to involve an excessive amount of just kicking the ball back an forth with seemingly nothing ever happening, but I'm sure if I'd grown up with the sport like I did with American football and tennis, then that part wouldn't be so boring. I've been experimenting with being a fan of the sport this year, however. I've been watching all of the Portland Timbers games I can, and I'm finally developing a little bit of an appreciation for the game. My interest coincidentally seems to coincide with the MLS's evolution into a more internationally respected league and a much more popular sport in the US. Seriously, I was shocked to find that the MLS had a higher average attendance at games last year than both the NBA and the NHL.
Unfortunately, Atlanta does not have an MLS team. Not only that, but there isn't an MLS team in the entire southeast. There is an NASL team, however, the NASL being the second tier of the American soccer pyramid. They're basically the AAA minor leagues to put it into baseball terms. The Silverbacks have been in Atlanta since 1995 and have a soccer-specific stadium seating 5,000 at the intersection of I-85 and I-285 north of Atlanta. They've had pretty good attendance recently. Saturday's game against Edomonton had an official attendance of 4,743. There were a lot of empty seats, but then the open areas behind both goals were usually pretty crowded.
My son's birthday is coming up, so I used that as an excuse to buy tickets to this past weekend's Silverbacks game. I was impressed. We had seats right down on the sidelines, cheap seats up close being one of the benefits of minor league sports, and we were able to freely move around the park without ever losing sight of the game, so we got a pretty full experience, which is good, because the aforementioned kid doesn't sit still for very long.
A few observations:
- Soccer is much more physical up close. Coming from the South and a football background, soccer has always looked a little delicate and twee. There in person with the guys often only a couple of yards away, it seems a lot more like basketball. There's a definite physicality. Lots of pushing and shoving.
- Also like basketball, I have no understanding of what is and what isn't a foul. One second they're plowing over one another with nothing called and no one surprised at the no call. The next second a guy is barely touched and there got a yellow card.
- Soccer players use their heads a lot more than I realized. I know headers are a part of the game. I just didn't realize how much.
- Soccer games are loud. There are two real supporter groups for the Silverbacks. We were directly across from the one with the drums and vuvuzelas. These guys also set off red smoke bombs at the end of the game even though the Silverbacks lost. The fans on our side were just general fans (and mostly hispanic in our section), but that didn't stop them from being noisy. Honestly, this makes the game more fun. It helps you let yourself be less inhibited in your cheering and that increases your enjoyment of the game. The subtitle of today's post is something the lady behind us kept yelling after an FC Edmonton player took a dive.
- While football is really better watched on TV than in person, soccer may be like hockey in that you somehow lose something on TV. This game was the most entertaining game I've seen and I think it was entirely because I was there and up close.
- Soccer refs have to be crazy fit, especially the linesmen. The one in front of us spent most of the game sprinting to keep even with the front of the action to be able to call off-sides.
- I kind of assumed that the NASL was also like the minors in basebally in that it would be mostly made up of guys who were being developed for the big leagues. Sure, many of them will never make it, but you don't see a lot of old guys in the baseball minors. The NASL seems to actually be a career peak for some of these guys. Both Atlanta and Edmonton had a LOT of guys hovering around 30 and who hadn't spent any time in the MLS or other top tier leagues. The quality of play was obviously professional. FC Edmonton actually played the Vancouver Whitecaps twice earlier this month as part of the Canadian championships and got beat, but seemed to be in the game both times. Vancouver is actually an above-average MLS team this year.
We'll be heading back, although we'll be taking the kid's soccer ball and the small grill and doing a tailgate. Anyone want to go to a game with us this summer?