By BILL REESE
Steve Bernasconi is on a journey. The Florida native created The Soccer Tour, a crowd-funded travelogue exploring North American professional soccer and its booming supporter culture.
The tour began in February and will crisscross the United States and Canada until October, stopping at clubs at every level of the soccer pyramid. This weekend, Bernasconi’s ambitious project rolls into New Jersey — at Friday night’s Red Bulls II game in Montclair and the senior side’s Atlantic Cup battle against D.C. United Saturday evening. So far he has been to 11 games and covered 4,525 miles.
EoS sat down with Bernasconi, 25, in Midtown Manhattan after his visit to the North American Soccer League’s Manhattan headquarters. Bernasconi is the former director or media and communications for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The club ceased operations this past winter. He talked about how that helped the project take shape.
“I’d just left my job, so the timing was right for me, personally,” he said. “I had the opportunity and the financial foundation to be able to attempt it. If I don’t do it now, I might not ever do it, and I would regret that for the rest of my life.”
A key component of the tour is interacting with soccer fans. To Bernasconi, the most common thread that he’s found in supporters is their general weirdness.
“As soccer supporters, we’re a weird, strange breed of people,” he said, adding that “in a country where domestic soccer isn’t the biggest, coolest, hippest thing, these people dedicate their lives to following and supporting their local teams.”
Bernasconi believes that the unique culture of soccer fandom is a big part of why fans are supporting his project. “If I was doing a baseball thing or a football thing, it wouldn’t be newsworthy,” he said. “The fact that it’s a soccer thing, the fact that soccer is still growing and emerging and trying to find its place in our country, that’s what resonated with a lot of people.”
The Soccer Tour is financed in part by monthly contributors on the crowd-funding site Patreon. At present, the tour has 73 patrons contributing anywhere from $2 to $20 per month. The contributions go toward everything from gas and car repairs to food. Bernasconi said he has been overwhelmed and humbled by the backing his project had received.
Additionally, Bernasconi recently acquired a sponsor from convenience store chain Circle-K, which provided him with gas cards. A publisher has contacted him about writing a book about his experience.
While support from fans has been great, Bernasconi says support from the teams The Soccer Tour has visited has been “a mixed bag.”
“There’s a few teams that have been really receptive to what I’m doing and think it’s the coolest thing in the world,” he said. Some clubs have given him access to players and coaches, or press credentials. Some, however, “haven’t returned an e-mail.” More often than not, Bernasconi said that lower-division teams have been more receptive to his project, craving the publicity. MLS teams often have not.
Asked how he experiences match days, Bernasconi laughed and said, “As much soccer as I’ve been watching, I haven’t really been watching it.” Generally, he prefers to divide his focus into 45-minute chunks, spending the first half of a game getting as many photos and videos as possible, then spending the second half in the supporters section. “These are the games where I’ve had the most fun,” he said.
There is often a good deal of down time between games, which allows Bernasconi to explore beyond the soccer culture.
“Soccer is only a small component of the tour,” he said. “It’s a huge country and there are so many interesting things to do, even if it’s not focused on soccer.” During the first few months of the tour, he’s explored numerous historical sites, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and the national monuments of Washington.
In the end, Bernasconi said he does not have any real benchmarks for the project’s success.
“As long as the car’s on the road, and as long as I’m waking up every day not regretting it, then I’m having fun,” he said, though he added: “It’s not a vacation, there’s obviously struggles and difficulties. For me, the biggest thing is to just enjoy it and to gain knowledge and perspective.”