It’s quiet in Metroland as the summer break drags on. Sure there are some high profile friendlies, and of course the All Star Game, but to be honest those games don’t appeal to me. If the Red Bulls manage to do well in the Emirates Cup it will be because the European teams weren’t trying and if they get embarrassed it will be unequivocal proof of how terrible MLS is. So for me, friendly season is just a fortnight of boredom before the race for the MLS playoffs kicks off in earnest.
This short break really couldn’t have come at a worse time. The 2-2 draw with Dallas was a good result but after ties upon ties, a loss to our biggest rival, the Open Cup debacle and the drubbing in Denver, it didn’t go a long way to quelling the frustration building up with the New York faithful, myself included.
In fact I’m in one of those stretches where soccer seems more exhausting than enjoyable, and I question how I became so infatuated with something that rarely lives up to my expectations.
My soccer obsession is over a decade in the making. It started with my discovery of a new world during the 1998 World Cup. Then there were frenzied Internet searches and trips to the library in an attempt to soak up as much knowledge as possible. I needed to make up for 10 years I had wasted on trivialities like Pokemon and childhood. My parents thought it was going to be another in a long line of short-lived obsessions that littered my tween years. They were wrong.
Pretty soon my entire schedule was devoted to watching games, my entire paycheck to attending them and my entire social circle based around them. Years passed and now soccer is an actual part of me, indistinguishable from my various other appendages. Suddenly, at nine in the morning I’m screaming at my television, as Mehdi Ballouchy completes his 43rd back pass in a 3-0 loss to Paris Saint Germain (that I swore I didn’t care about in the first place). It’s legitimately frightening.
Still, there are some moments which stand out among the blur of endless games that make up the last 13 years of my life. Moments when soccer, my friends, a place and a phase of life all combined in a memorable flourish, contributing to soccer becoming less of a hobby and more like a vital organ. One of those moments was a trip to Wilmington, NC to watch the Red Bulls play in the Open Cup fourth round.
The summer before I went away to college was the most hectic of my life. In a failed attempt to quell the mix of excitement, terror, sadness and anticipation that came with my impending departure for Canada, I was constantly finding ways to keep myself busy. So when I heard the Red Bulls were going to play the Wilmington Hammerheads in the Open Cup my friends and I had to go. Of course I thought it was Wilmington, Delaware, but a 478 mile miscalculation wasn’t enough to stop us.
The traffic-ridden journey to North Carolina took 14 hours. The trip was broken up by an impromptu drag race against Boo and Amy (according to their vanity plate) and a stop in a town that had real-live dirt roads. Fun Fact: If a Saturn goes over 95 miles an hour it starts to shake uncontrollably.
The following day was matchday and with the temperature just a touch over 110 degrees, conditions were less than ideal. We decided to spend the day at the beach. The heat and humidity decided that we went to Pizza Hut and drank beers in our hotel room all day. We were there to watch soccer, not write a travel book after all.
As the game approached, our hotel party made the transition to a tailgate in the sweltering and empty parking lot of Legion Stadium. Of course, since we were drinking underage we all got pregnant and died. So to any kids reading, your parents are right.
In reality we had a great time. The only minor hiccup came when a stadium security guard approached us as we tailgated. Accustomed to the dime-store hoods that passed as NJSEA security in Giants Stadium, I saw jail and crying parents in my future. But like a wonderful Southern cliché the bored security guard just wanted to shoot the breeze with the four people crazy enough to drive 14 hours for a minor league soccer game.
The match itself was kind of a blur. The mix of booze, singing and excitement erased all but flashes of the 2-1 victory for the Red Bulls. According to Metrofanatic.com Jordan Cila scored the winner. Jordan Cila?
The game drew an impressive crowd of 5,000 people, amongst them the boisterous Port City Firm, who at one point pelted us with all manner of objects and tried to steal our drum. Seeing as we ran in front of their section to celebrate the winning goal, we deserved it.
They showed their true character following the match when we shared a meal at their local pub discussing our common love, soccer, and settled a bet arranged on a message board. To the winners from New York went genuine Carolina boiled peanuts, and despite the loss, our friends from Wilmington still got their New York bagels. Even Wilmington’s coaching staff stopped by to thank all of us for coming out to the match, a fitting finish to a great trip.
That’s just a small sample of the memories from that trip. Greg still wears the jersey Jeff Parke threw him after the game and I’m still astounded by another fellow road tripper’s ability to sleep for literally the entire trip, save the 90-minute game. I’m sure we will continue to talk about the trip that becomes increasingly legendary with time.
Even though we were all weeks away from scattering across the country, at the time the trip didn’t feel like the end of an era. In a way it was. We still all go to games together but midweek soccer road trips on a whim are pretty much out of the question and apparently the Red Bulls have decided the Open Cup is worthless. I do, however, credit that trip with insuring we all maintained our passion for soccer even in the face of the considerable distractions that college offers.
My time in Wilmington also gave me an appreciation for the people who support soccer in what I previously thought were footie wastelands. While I pick and choose which international friendlies are worth my time, people like the Port City Firm embrace their teams even without the big names and shiny stadia. I’ve seen similar passion at lower league matches in Cleveland, Harrisburg, Upstate New York and other soccer outposts. Each time a small but diehard group of supporters reignites my faith in the American game.
Most importantly, the Wilmington road trip was one of the experiences that made me stop and appreciate how much joy soccer has brought me. Remembering my favorite road trip still sustains my enthusiasm for soccer even when I’m at my most cynical. So when the Red Bulls are losing at home and make their solitary substitution, Stephen Keel for Luke Rodgers in 87th minute, I can think of Wilmington and remember how fantastic soccer can be.