Heading to the Citrus Bowl tonight to watch Orlando City SC take on the Colorado Rapids, I can honestly say it’s not the first time I’ve watched a professional soccer match in person. But man, has it been a LONG time.
Soccer was HUGE where I grew up in Pennsylvania. It probably started when the Bethlehem Steel Company sponsored a professional club back in 1913 and won five National Cups over the next two decades, still tied for the most US Open Cup victories in history. The steel mill became a melting pot of many cultures over the next few decades, cultures that all loved soccer. Even though professional soccer left the region, the sport continued to be very popular.
In my case, it didn’t hurt that my elementary AND junior high school gym teachers were both top-level soccer coaches – needless to say we played a LOT of soccer and kickball in gym class all school year – outdoors and indoors. Summer soccer camps with my friends led to eventually playing for my junior high school soccer team where I peaked as the 87th string JV goalkeeper. Thankfully I never gave up a goal, especially because East Hills had been undefeated and unscored-upon for decades. My high school team was really good, not the least of which was because I did NOT play for it. They shared the PIAA State Championship in my senior year, which was the first state title for the school in any sport.
It was a RIDICULOUS match.
So back to my soccer fandom. Growing up, there was a league called the American Soccer League and our local team was the Pennsylvania Stoners – easily one of the greatest nicknames for a team of the 80s in ANY sport. The Stoners played at one of our local high school stadia and I remember going to many games with my friends. As I look back and read that the team tumbled to bankruptcy when it moved to my town, I can only assume they were giving away tickets to us kids because I remember the place always being packed.
Make no mistake, along the way I’ve announced my share of college and PDL soccer matches in the Gotham area, but I’ve always hesitated from jumping on the MLS bandwagon. Journeying to rusty Harrison, New Jersey to watch Red Bull New York is slightly less fun than heading to the swamp for Giants/Jets games. And I have to admit, I’m a little queasy watching a match at the new Yankee Stadium, it just seems as wrong as sitting in grandpa’s chair. Sorry New York City FC. For now.
Needless to say I was surprised when I visited Orlando in March and saw the newly-remodeled Citrus Bowl. WOW! As I started to follow Orlando City FC from afar, it became really clear to me that the soccer bug bit me again. So here I am, ready to become a fan once again of The Beautiful Game, re-bit by the soccer bug.