Inside the madness of the MLS

Shiv Bhardwaj reports from the Stanford Stadium on the Cali Clasico

Photo: Anwesha Sarma

Towards the end of my first week in the summer quarter at Stanford University, I heard that the San Jose Earthquakes were hosting LA Galaxy in the MLS. As a regular at my beloved Chelsea, I was at once gripped by the opportunity to experience American ‘soccer’, a world that was wholly alien to me. Having found out that the game was taking place on campus at the Stanford Stadium, which seats a staggering 50,000 fans, my decision was made.

On a typically warm Californian evening, my friend and I found ourselves at the centre of an MLS derby just a twenty minute walk from our accommodation. Across the pond, Americans invest a lot of time and money into their undertakings – rarely do they do anything half-heartedly – so it is hardly surprising that football has grown in the USA so rapidly since the league’s foundation back in 1993. The evidence was on display outside the ground as thousands of fans made their way through the turnstiles, clad head-to-toe in team merchandise. For a country where football is perhaps the fifth most popular sport, this was quite a turnout.

Our tickets advised that the match would begin at 19.15, but curiously as the time drew nearer there was no sign of any football. It was then that I realised first-hand how American sports involve so much more than the game itself – the pre-match entertainment was about to commence. Given the proximity to the Independence Day holiday it was a patriotic affair, with the spotlight on war veterans and an abundance of stars and stripes. By the time ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was complete, it felt more like an international match than a domestic league fixture.

I was relieved to hear the referee finally start the game, but the opening ten minutes were a sloppy affair with neither side threatening and some wayward passing. The crowd were quiet and the atmosphere flat. But out of nothing the visitors from LA had their goal. A free-kick from the left found its way to centre-back Van Damme who, somehow unmarked, fired home with a neat volley. Remarkably, the Earthquake fans behind the goal continued their collection of chants, seemingly oblivious to what had happened on the pitch.

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It took until the thirty fifth minute for the home team to turn up, as they then began to apply some pressure to an untroubled LA defence. A series of corners were met with the home crowd stamping their feet to live up to the team’s name, whilst the players adopted the unusual tactic of crowding round the goal line.

Around us the crowd, packed with children and families keen to see the firework display that was to follow the game, was consuming vast amounts of candy floss, popcorn and hotdogs as the half came to an end. The lacklustre football on the pitch was not going to stop them having fun. As the half-time whistle blew we decided it would only be fitting to indulge in some nachos ourselves to get the true experience. Long queues meant we missed the half-time entertainment, which involved yet another rendition of the national anthem.

The second half began as the first, but suddenly a spark arose out of nowhere in the 75th minute. San Jose keeper David Bingham made a fine save to keep his side in the game, before launching an NFL-style kick downfield (refreshingly simple in comparison to the Premier League’s nuanced tactical approach). It found captain Wondolowski, who swivelled and fired home emphatically to level the scores. The 15 minutes that followed were tense with both sides having chances, but it looked as if the Cali Clasico was headed for a draw.

Then, in the 93rd minute substitute Shea Salinas finished off a neat move from the home team to spark wild celebrations. Galaxy’s earlier goal scorer Van Damme was sent off for dissent in a feisty end to an otherwise subdued game.

Whilst it was impressive to see the growth of football in the USA, I couldn’t help feel that the game was more the background to an evening out for most fans. Big international stars such as David Beckham drew vast global attention to the MLS, but the rise of football in China is threatening to drag players away from the USA. The Independence Day fireworks that followed were mightily impressive, and seemed to be the highlight of the evening for many. A new influx of talent could go a long way to changing that in years to come.

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In coming to the game, I had hoped that I would be able to demystify the madness of MLS football, but I left with just as many questions as answers.