FOOTBALLS ARE ROUND!

Soccer – The Most Important of Life’s Unimportant Things


July 18, 2006

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS ROAD TRIP EDITION: FIRE v FCD


by @ 7:57 pm.
Filed under Stream Of Consciousness

Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.

Jake: Hit it.

It doesn’t sound as cool, but the party wagon was loaded down with diet soft drinks and sandwich fixins, it was 11:00 at night, and it was 770 miles to Chicago when we lit out of Edmond town the Friday before the first ever Brimstone match at Bridgeview Stadium. The lovely Cid an I had Mr. and Mrs. Segroves with us along for the ride. Great people, apart from the whole “Fire fan” thing they unfortunately have going on, and undeniably excellent traveling companions. I’m a night owl, so I took the first driving shift.

The Interstate Highway system is really a marvel of modern engineering and planning, if you think about it. Especially for a government project. We were traveling halfway across the country, yet the directions still went something like “get on I-44, then get on I-55, then get off at Bridgeview”. Good roads, minimal construction, reasonable speed limits (except in Illinois, where it’s still 65 for some reason), and a well-stocked truck stop every few miles. And even with gas at $3.00 a gallon, you can afford a drive of that distance without having to take out a second mortgage. I love this country.

The surprising thing, to me, about Illinois is that outside the urban areas it looks just like Oklahoma, albeit about two shades darker green (apparently Illinois is blessed with a phenomenon called “regular rainfall”, which I have heard of, but have never experienced in all my years of okiedom). Really though, rolling farm country, small trees, the occasional cow pasture – it wasn’t like being in another state until you hit the City.

We stopped in Bloomington to get a hotel room for pre-game freshening up and post-game sleep. Bloomington, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, was the hometown of that great American, Dr. Henry Blake (Lt. Col., U.S.A., deceased). If we’d had more time, we would have searched around for the Henry Blake Birthplace Home, which must surely be some sort of museum/shrine/giftshop complex, I’m thinking. Maybe next time.

The Bloomington Wal-mart is way better than ours in Edmond, for some reason. Cid and Mrs. S were outraged and disgusted by the relative cheesiness of our hometown WallyWorld in comparison to this midwestern shrine of low-low-price-itude. Mike and I were greatly amused by the selection of half-price World Cup themed throw rugs. The one with the Italy logo was notable in that it threw itself on the ground automatically, but wouldn’t stop rolling around until you squirted some water on it.

We actually got to the Comfort Inn Bloomington way too early for check-in time, but a few minutes of sitting in the lobby, directly across from the front desk, staring at the clerk with cold, sleep-deprived eyes and taking turns using the lobby bathroom for inordinate amounts of personal hygiene work soon had the young man in charge scrambling about for a few rooms that had already been serviced by the crack housekeeping staff. Score one for passive aggressive behavior.

We all showered up (not together, you dirty-minded so and so’s), put on some official MLS licensed replica jerseys, and hit the road for the final two hour push to the mecca of American heartland soccer, Toyota Park. We stopped briefly just before reaching Bridgeview to grab some beer for the tailgate. This being a real City, they had a real selection of beer, so I picked out a six pack of a beer with a name that I still can’t pronounce, on the theory that if it is made anywhere in Europe, it must be better than Bud Light.

When we parked (FIFTEEN BUCKS FOR PARKING!? I HOPE YOU GUYS TURN A PROFIT THIS YEAR AT THAT PRICE!), it was time for the Walkers and The Segroves to part ways, temporarily becoming blood enemies not unlike the Hatfields and McCoys, but only for the duration of the game. It took us a while to find the small but hoppin’ Inferno tailgate, which had merged with a tailgate hosted by friends and family of Dario Sala, whose American wife hails from Chicago. (You guys were awesome, by the way. Thanks for making us feel so welcome; it really made the trip even better than we expected). It was already blazing hot by this time, and the parking lot was fulfilling its role in earthly physics by reflecting and magnifying the heat to a degree that was almost unseemly. But so what – we had beer.

Oh, and at this point, let me say something that needs to be said. This whole “Windy City” thing is a huge crock of nonsense. It was about 140 degrees the whole time we were in Chicago and I swear I didn’t feel anything even resembling a breeze the entire time. What gives with you people? Did you give the Lake Effect the weekend off or something? I could have stayed in Oklahoma if I wanted to see small animals bursting into flames, okay?

But I digress.

Game time. The Fire Front Office staff had stuck us in a far corner of the stadium, in the very last spot to get any shade from the expensive and stylish roof they tacked on the stadium (if you’re scoring at home, we got shade in our section just as second-half injury time started. Thanks for that, guys; thanks a load). But apart from that quibble, they weren’t bad seats and there are no bad views in the stadium anyway, so we were pretty happy. Our contingent was small, but enthusiastic and loud. The surrounding Fire fans tried to compete with us, by cleverly yelling “sucks!” after our songs and chants, but that didn’t even last until kickoff. Amateurs.

The match itself started out slow, which is understandable given the heat, which, if I haven’t made myself clear heretofore, was excessive. Which is not to say sluggish; both teams came out ready to play. Hard tackles and attacking soccer were the order of the day. After a while the players forgot it was hot enough to bake cupcakes on the field and starting going at each other hammer and tongs. I’m not sure where the expression “hammer and tongs” comes from, and I’m not completely sure what a tong even is, but I can assure you, that’s the way they were going after each other, regardless. David Wagenfuhr got pole-axed by Logan Pause (Ed note: Justin Mapp, not Pause) and had to be carried off on a stretcher. It wasn’t a dirty play, just a bad collision, but you could see that David was hurt. He was holding his head and flopping around in a manner that could never be mistaken for play-acting. The man took a shot, and it looked bad. We heard later is was a concussion, which didn’t surprise anyone watching.

When Ramon Núñez ripped a long shot past Zach Thornton about 10 minutes into the match, I swear I thought it must have been the heat playing games with my vision, not unlike a man seeing a false oasis in the desert. But no, it was true. We were up 1-0 on the Fire, on the road. I started hoping it would get about 30 degrees hotter so the players would just congregate in the shady part of the field and play keepy-uppy the rest of the match. I could have lived with that. Instead, they kind of went back and forth until halftime, went and had some orange slices, then proceeded to come out and play one of the most amazing second-halves I’ve ever seen in all my days.

Ten minutes in, Andy Herron goes ballistic and scores two goals in three minutes. I mean, come on, where did that come from. The first was one of those painfully close beat-the-offside-trap runs that left him alone with Dario, who came off his line quickly only to have Herron nutmeg him to tie the game. It was cruel, putting it between the man’s legs like that, in front of his hometown peeps. Still, what was he going to do? Even Dario Sala can’t guard the near post, far post, and five-hole all at the same time. Some time you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you, right?

Okay, so it was tied up. We weren’t really discouraged. You couldn’t expect to keep a one-goal lead forever against the Fire at home, let’s face facts. There was still plenty of time left, and we weren’t showing signs of exactly fading away or anything. But when the second goal by Herron happened right on the heels of the first, and the Section 8 folks started really getting fired up and loud, I think even the most optimistic of us in the corner section began to get a little discouraged.

It’s not as if we’re a great come-from-behind type of team. That’s being kind about it. At that point, I’m more than a little ashamed to say, I would have wagered everything I owned, and everything I would ever hope to own, on FC Dallas not coming back to win that game. I know. That’s wrong, and I freely admit my lack of faith. But I’ve seen a lot of games since 1996, and that’s just what I’ve been led to expect. Forgive me, boys, for not believing in you.

But, in fairness to my terrible, pessimistic nature, I have never, EVER seen them come alive the way they did after they went down 2-1 on Saturday. Keep in mind, this was a team that had no Carlos Ruiz, no Roberto Mina, no Ronnie O’Brien. Wags had already been taken off on a stretcher, and Dominic Oduro went off the same way not long after the second Herron goal. To say we’ve been decimated by injuries is to be too conservative with the language. Yet the amount of guts and fire I saw from FC Dallas in the final half-hour of that match had nothing to do with the state of the roster, or the temperature on the field, or even the score on the jumbotron. It was about professionalism, courage, and a flatout refusal to lose. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

The tying goal was scored thanks to two defenders who take, in my opinion, way, way, WAY too much crap from the FC Dallas internet-based peanut gallery. Chris Gbandi beat his marker like an Inferno drum, got to the endline and made a nice cross to the middle of the eighteen, and my man Bobby Rhine first absolutely thumped it first-time with his left foot. Just like that, 2-2.

Now look, I’ve said this before, and now I’m going to say it again: you people need to quit disrespecting Bobby Rhine. Bobby is the heart and soul of this squad. He has swallowed his pride and gone from a lifelong forward to a new defender, for the good of the team. It hasn’t been an easy transition, and he’s made mistakes along the way; so what? When you screw up on your job, you don’t have it televised, do you? So shut up, already. Further, he has NEVER complained, never whined, and never done anything less than bring everything he’s got to give every single game. He never quits, never dogs it, never mails it in. He’s got more class in his little finger than most teams have on their entire roster. Not only that, he’s the best friend the Inferno have ever had in a player. He never forgets to come by and greet us personally, and Saturday, he actually jumped the barrier to give us some love after his goal, which was something we appreciate more than he can probably even imagine. Especially when it was hot as hell out there and it would have felt a thousand times better just to walk back to his position, preferably in the shady strip of the field.

So, once and for all, I’m telling you all: get off the man’s back and show a little appreciation now and then.

Okay, where was I?

Oh yeah. Bobby scored to tie the game. I remember when John O’Brien scored the first goal against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, I was so excited and yelled so loud that the blood rushed to my head and I very nearly passed out from the excitement. That’s exactly how I reacted to Bobby’s goal Saturday. Did you ever see one of those videos of when the Blue Angels take a reporter up in their F/18 fighters and start doing high speed turns? The reporter invariably goes unconscious for a few seconds, eyes rolling to the back of their head, tongue hanging out, then waking right back up wondering what happened.

It was kind of like that. But better.

Then when Kenny Cooper headed in the winner, I seriously began to think I was having a dream and that I was going to wake up and find it wasn’t real. It was way too good to be true, but for once, it was actually true. Kenny almost decided to jump the barrier and give the Inferno some love, Bobby-style, but I think he saw the crazed, heat-delirious look in our collective eyes, decided he was too young to be smothered to death at a soccer game and thought better of it. He stopped just short of our section and, perhaps wisely, celebrated from where he was. He’s a great kid, though. He came by after the game and signed autographs and let several Infernites jump down from our section to take pictures with him. Very nice young man; very gracious and kind, even though he was nearly dehydrated and clearly bone-tired. He played his guts out; it was Homeric. The whole game was Homeric. It was impetuous. It was a game for the ages.

The last fifteen minutes, trying to hold on to the lead, were agonizing. As if the game wasn’t perfect enough, the boys even tried, for a while, to protect the lead by scoring a 4th goal. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. But inevitably, the Fire absolutely poured on the pressure for last 10 or so minutes, and we were forced to defend, desperately at times, while they tried to even the score. Great stuff. I hope there were a ton people watching on ESPN2 who had never seen a professional soccer game before. Because you just know those people will be back for more. It was just that kind of game.

I have to give a shout-out (as the young people say) to the group of Chicago natives who root for FC Dallas who joined with the Inferno for the latter part of the second half. They were great fun and added to our enjoyment of the match immensely. We know have our first out-of-town Inferno Chapter, I suppose. Cool.

Well, it was a broken and beaten Mike Segroves I finally found thirty minutes after the final whistle, sitting on a cooler in the Fire tailgate section. Sunburned, depressed, slightly inebriated, and in no mood to put up with verbal abuse from me for the 770 mile trip back to Oklahoma.

Not that that stopped me, mind you.

We hung out with the Fire folks for a while, who were incredibly gracious and friendly, even after having their team rip out their collective guts and stomp them flat that afternoon. I met lots of BigSoccer people in person for the first time, too, which is always one of my favorite things about going to MLS matches. GLU, CityIce, Redchick, Jay, PackMan, and my long lost brotherfromanothermother, Ross from St. Paul. Not to mention Mr. and Mrs GeordieNation, who took us back to their beautiful home after the tailgate for great food, cold drinks, and that rarest of all phenomena, fascinating, amusing, and apt conversation. You just couldn’t even ask for a better day, ever.

Oh yeah, and we get to keep the Brimstone Cup. Again.

So, was it worth driving 24 hours total for a two hour soccer match and a few more hours of visiting with friends?

Do you even have to ask me that question?

See you next week for Real Salt Rochester.

(For photos of this grand excursion, go to http://picasaweb.google.com/djwalker/ChicagoRoadTrip)

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