I’ve been a soccer evangelical all my life. As a player and a fan, I’ve preached the gospel of the beautiful game with a missionary zeal in the land of American football and baseball. I’ve been thinking about this recently for two interconnected reasons.
The first reason feels a bit predictable. With the 2018 World Cup looming, my friends are beginning to ask for viewing tips for the must-see games, players to watch, and of course my dark horse candidates to make a long run. Every four years, many of my friends take a break from scouting for their fantasy football leagues to take part in the global soccer festival. They come to me because I’m their “soccer guy,” that one friend who both knows the game and can interpret it into a language they understand to enhance their viewing.
This became my role over numerous drinks at the bar or crack of dawn shifts at my old job. In these situations, I would evangelize my love for soccer, hoping to make a few converts or at least bridge the gap of understanding. The World Cup is an easy sell, as watch parties were held at my house or the pub included drinking beer at lunchtime (or a very early breakfast when the games were in Japan and Korea in 2002), and the best players in the world are on display.
Preaching domestic soccer has always been a taller order and, lately, something I’ve been neglectful of. In the earliest days of Orlando City — I’m talking red shirts and a very young Kevin Molino early, I was an outspoken evangelist for the new home team. With the enthusiasm of a Southern preacher, I prodded and plied friends and strangers alike to come attend a game. I gave tickets away, I bought tickets for people who couldn’t afford them and packed my car with people. I preached the gospel for 90 minutes of anxious cheering and goal celebrations with equal vim. I know for a fact that two of my friends have been season ticket holders since they saw the 2011 USL Cup final. If you were at that game, you know why.
When Orlando pushed for and finally joined MLS, and in the first few seasons, I continued my push to expose the club to as many friends as possible.
I wasn’t alone, of course. Phil Rawlins became a regular on nearly every media outlet imaginable, as did Adrian Heath and Kay Rawlins. When Kaká joined the club, he was as much an ambassador as he was a player. My fan evangelicalism wasn’t a one-supporter cause, as most of the people who followed the team worked to build the fan base. All of the supporters’ groups deserve a massive amount of credit for their level of organization and enthusiasm that helped draw many of us into the club.
The problem — and this is just me being honest — was that once we arrived at the new stadium, my preaching of the Orlando City gospel became lackluster. I can only speak for myself, and unequivocally am not pointing the finger at anyone else, but I sorta just stopped. Once we had a top-tier team, an amazing stadium, and sellout crowds I figured Orlando got the message and my work was done here.
I still wear my Orlando City hat nearly everywhere I go, but I don’t strike up the same conversations I used to. If someone mentions the team, I generally nod and agree with them, and move about things. That spark of supporting an upstart team is now just a passive ember. I’ve been complacent and neglectful when it comes to spreading the love, passion, and joy I have for Orlando City.
That’s the thing, when it comes to soccer in America — we as fans can never not be evangelical about our love for the game and our teams. If we grow complacent, like I have, the game will just fade into the background. In a land of football, baseball, and basketball crazy American sports fans, soccer will always be insurgent. If we stop evangelizing the game, it will fade quickly into the dark. It’s happened once before, after all.
What’s your take? Do you consider yourself a preacher of the beautiful game? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get a friend, family member, co-worker, or complete stranger to attend a soccer game for the first time?