Try to stop him

On this Super Bowl Sunday, while a huge percentage of Americans (including folks who don’t watch football any other day) will be riveted by today’s NFL match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, I’ll be thinking ahead to another kind of football. After last year’s Super Bowl tragedy, I find myself indifferent to a game that doesn’t feature the New England Patriots. Yes, I’ll watch the Super Bowl to see who wins and to see this year’s batch commercials, and to those of you who are Steelers or Cardinals fans, I can sincerely say “May the best team win.” But ever since the Patriots were eliminated from play-off contention this year, I’ve found my interest in NFL football has gone dormant for another season. Right now, instead of feeling fanatical about the Super Bowl, I’m looking ahead to the “football” offered by Major League Soccer.

Fast and furious

When J gave me tickets to a half-dozen New England Revolution games last Valentine’s Day, neither one of us were soccer fans. We knew only the most boneheaded basics of the game: namely, that you try to kick the ball into the other team’s goal. But everything else was new to us. Over the course of those half-dozen games, we acquired a working knowledge of how soccer works. We figured out, for instance, that the game clock runs up rather than down, a mysterious thing called “stoppage time” takes the place of time-outs, and red and yellow cards serve the same purpose as do penalty flags in football. Although we’d heard folks refer to all of these (and other) aspects of the game, we didn’t really “get” any of them until we sat through a few games, watched what the players were doing, and cheered or booed when the folks around us did.

Matt Reis gets his kicks

J and I learned the rudimentary rules of soccer, in other words, by immersion: we went to games, lived by the philosophy of “when in Rome, cheer like the Romans,” and took care to eavesdrop when fans around us explained the game to their newbie friends. (Thank goodness, for instance, for two separate Irishmen who sat behind us, accompanied by American friends, and provided meticulous play-by-play commentary during several of our first games.) We approached soccer games as an anthropologist might: not as a set of rules to be memorized but as a social phenomenon to be observed. At any given sporting event, there’s the stuff that happens on the playing field and the stuff that happens in the stands, and if you really want to understand a given game, you need to watch both. Soccer (not unlike football, baseball, basketball, or hockey) involves much more than a bunch of players working up a sweat trying to score goals, runs, or baskets. Soccer (not unlike football, baseball, basketball, or hockey) is a social phenomenon–a kind of delicate dance–whereby you declare your allegiance to one set of partners and engage in a friendly fight against those identifying with another. The point of any game is as much that act of allegiance as it is whether your team “wins.”

Fancy footwork

This is why J, who grew up in Pittsburgh, doesn’t necessarily care whether the Steelers win the Super Bowl today. Although he’s not antagonistic towards Pittsburgh teams, he’s lived in Boston for more than a decade and thus roots for New England sports teams now. When in Rome, cheer as the Romans do: when we watched the New England Revolution play the Columbus Crew, for instance, I rooted for New England even though I was born and raised in Columbus. All else being equal, you should dance with who brought you, but if you aren’t with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Cheesy cliches aside, J and enjoyed attending last year’s Revolution games as a way of supporting a local team even if we weren’t exactly experts when it came to the sport they were playing. Regional team allegiance came first, and understanding the subtleties of the sport gradually followed. There is, after all, a certain excitement in figuring out the language and customs of a strange-to-you sport as you go along.

Edging toward the goal

So when our friendly New England Revolution salesperson asked if we wanted to buy a multi-game ticket package for the 2009 season, we said we did…and this week, after learning that this year’s Revolution schedule is stacked with weekend home games, we decided to upgrade our multi-game package to a full set of season tickets. That means J and I will be attending 15 New England Revolution soccer games at Gillette Stadium this summer, along with an additional handful of special events (schedule to-be-determined) over the course of the season. Fifteen-plus soccer games means J and I will have that many more chances to improve our soccer fluency, and it means we’ll see all the spectacles worth blogging about, including the game when David Beckham comes to town. J and I might be soccer newbies, but even we know a superstar when we see one.

Beckham, etc

Apart from that last photo from last August’s game against the LA Galaxy, the other photos illustrating today’s post come from Revolution victories over the Houston Dynamo last March and Toronto FC last June. At this point, I’m itching to see green turf, even if it’s artificial.