Soccer in the USA: Like church on Sunday, but with more pub chips
I arrived late to Crossroads Irish Pub. The Manchester United game against Tottenham was supposed to be delayed until 1:30 p.m. EST, as even international multimillionaire sports stars get stuck in London traffic. However, the team arrived and kicked off earlier than the amended start time, and so I was left hustling to the bar. By the time I arrived to the Beacon Street pub, the game was already in full force.
The ground floor was a fairly tame arrangement, with new wooden floors, a modern fireplace, and a very sterile, gastro-pub vibe. Not the Irish bar I was expecting from the exterior, or the troll-infested cave that I imagined would house a soccer fan club. I asked a bartender if he knew Chris Rush, a fellow British expat who’d invited me to attend, and I was led up carpeted stairs to a second bar.
The upper floor was teeming with United’s red shirts and yellow logos, and the customary hubbub of those crowded around large screen televisions for a sporting event.
A small Scottish man even paler than myself, Rush was ringed by a crowd of fans when I found him, but welcomed me warmly.
“It started last season,” Rush said, referring to the ManUtd Boston supporters’ club that now calls Crossroads Irish Pub home. A lot of the United fans were going to The Phoenix Landing with Liverpool fans, until a United fan from Philadelphia spoke to the owner of Crossroads. “From there it just grew,” he said.
According to Rush, attendance tops out at around 200 for big games, composed of attendees of all types.
“We’ve got Americans, Indians, Asians, we got some New Zealanders in here, expats like myself,” he said. “It’s a real mix of people.”
It was warm. It felt safe. The room smelled clean, not of booze and sweat. People were coherently chatting while watching the game, not just frothing at the mouth with testosterone. As Rush pointed out, while the t-shirts may’ve been the same colour, the faces were not.
The diversity of the group was genuinely impressive. I don’t mean diversity in the traditional sense: a group of white men with a few token ethic faces. There were genuinely people of all creeds present. White, black, brown, but most surprisingly to me: Women.
“I’ve been coming here long enough that people know me,” said Maria Kristjansdottir, an Icelandic expat, and one of the several aforementioned women. “I know my stuff too,” she said. “That can be a hurdle. Guys can look at you and think, ‘Do you really know football?’ But you just gotta have a few things in your back pocket.”
In her back pocket, she said, she usually carried a red and yellow card, to wave at the TV after the more dubious tackles. Above her back pocket was a current season United shirt, with the number 20, and the name “Solskjaer”; a United super-substitute from the bygone golden age of the club. Somebody only a longtime fan would know.
Kristjansdottir was not the hard nosed female fan of the U.K., who’d managed to break into the all-boy’s club by emulating them. She was a woman who thoroughly enjoyed the sport of soccer, and was welcome to enjoy it in the company of her fellow supporters. Her cheesiness of the cards was accepted — even enjoyed and embraced.
alftime hit, and the crowd turned in on itself, dissecting the half’s performance, getting the next round in, and discussing hot button issues surrounding the club. And they knew things! They debated the manager, they sung the songs, and they had opinions on the trajectory of the MLS.
As it seemed appropriate for the setting, I engaged two men in a debate over the future of American soccer. It turned out even pessimists were welcome at this bar. The elder of the two, and one of the oldest patrons of the upper floor, Mark Ilaria, said he played soccer all through his youth, and even joined an old men’s league. He conceded to his wife he ought to stop playing after breaking his ankle. Twice.
Despite his love of the sport — and his suspicious longtime support of underdog league leaders Leicester City — Mark was adamant that the MLS was never going to hit any kind of heights.
“America is all about TV commercials, and TV commercials are never going to work in soccer. Can you think about if the EPL stopped the game for a commercial break? There’d be a riot,” he said. “I don’t think American people have the patience. They want to watch the game for five minutes then they want to get a beer. The majority in here are either foreign born or have some kind of connection.”
Simba Pasipanodya disagreed. A Zimbabwean expat dubbed an “old timer” by Rush, Pasipanodya was clearly a well loved and respected member of the group. A lesser person would make a lion pun here about him overseeing his red-shirted pride.
“It’s all generational,” he retorted. “Because [Mark] grew up watching baseball, that was your thing, and then your kids probably went to baseball. There is a generation of kids right now in their early 20’s that grew up going to Gillette Stadium to watch the Revs, and that watched the U.S. make it to the round of 16, the quarter finals in the last two World Cups.
“They’ve played soccer in high school, NBC has been showing the Premier League,” he argued. “There’s a generation that’s young right now, knowing Ronaldo or Messi as an icon like they know LeBron as an icon. 30 years from now that momentum is going to really…”
The two trailed off as an overwhelming cheer went up around the room. The Boston supporter’s group had popped up the screens as one of NBC’s weekly featured supporter groups. Thanks to a lacklustre first half symptomatic of United’s season, something to cheer about was eagerly appreciated. The second half started with chants way louder than the attendance, or America’s acclaimed soccer ambivalence, would’ve suggested.
“When NBCSports put together probably the industry leading coverage of any sport, it made it so much better to come to the pub and watch the game,” said Erik Mansur, a native Bay Stater.
Mansur said he watched the New England Revolution as the MLS kicked off 23 years ago, but fell in love with Manchester United six years later. This was in 1999. The year Manchester United made history as the only British club ever to win the three domestic tournaments in one year.
“To get exposure to that level of football, I’d come home from work each night and watch a United match,” he said. The channel that broadcast Sox games had bought the Manchester United package to fill time with late-night.
Thanks to a deal worth around $1 billion, soccer is now far easier to come by in the USA. NBC’s parent company, Comcast, bought the American rights to the Premier League last year, and reported almost a 120 percent increase in viewership of the sport between 2013 and 2015.
That number is sure to have increased again this year, as NBC Sports Group reported more than 17 million fans tuned in to watch the first 11 weeks of this season.
I can personally attest to the sublime coverage they provide. Using a streaming platform like the Apple TV, or Google’s Chromecast, every game is streamed live, and is as easy to watch as simply selecting it. Throw in all the additional hours of presentations from the channel’s all-star team of commentators, the Men in Blazers, and The 2 Robbies, and watching a formerly obscure sporting event on your television suddenly became more difficult to avoid than participate in. And best of all, thanks to the time difference, the day’s games are finished by 2:30 p.m.
Greenwich Mean Time isn’t the only aspect gladly missing from the viewing experience.
“I’ve been to Ireland, I’ve been to England, where it’s much more parochial,” said Mansur. “I think there’s a lot less hate here. It’s very reminiscent of American football, where, I love the Patriots, but I don’t hatethe Giants. I don’t see a Giants fan and feel aggressive toward them by virtue of the fact that he’s wearing a Giants jersey.”
Over the course of my time talking to Erik, United went down one, two, and three goals, in quick succession. Some expletives were yelled, and an opposing player was loudly referred to as the offspring of a female dog, but the atmosphere remained pleasant. It was all rather nice.
Despite the somewhat humiliating loss, there was an energy and an excitement bigger than just the crowd in Crossroads. They were enjoying the ride of fandom and their role as cheerleaders of the sport; frontiersmen — and women — of soccer. But this young, eclectic crowd, weren’t here just because it was trendy, or cool, or hip. They were here for the love of the game.
“We hang out outside of games,” my fellow Brit, Chris Rush said. "Football’s not just fans, it’s a community thing, it’s a friendship thing. And that’s really what it’s becoming for us,” he said. “Even though United suck this season, people still come out to the games because they want to see their friends and they want to have a couple of pints. Natural progression is becoming fans to friends. That’s what football’s all about worldwide.”