I did something Friday afternoon that I haven’t done in at least six years. I sat down and watched a Premier League game. This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve ever watched an EPL game. I grew up loving the 1990s Manchester United teams that featured my favorite player, Ryan Giggs. As time wore on, my interest in European soccer waned as my interest in Orlando City, the USL, and then MLS, grew.
Watching European clubs in the 1980s and 1990s felt different, fun, and a bit underground. Soccer wasn’t popular, so finding and following clubs as an American felt a bit insurgent. It was challenging, finding random games with the limited number of cable channels, often watching in Spanish, and no ability to stream every league game via the internet. In a time when soccer in the United States had not yet experienced a rebirth through MLS, living in the South and far from any of the clubs in the league made following clubs in England, Spain, or Germany a more viable option. I kept my eye on domestic soccer, attended local games of lower league clubs and college games, but nothing felt consistent or right until Orlando City came along. The arrival of the Lions in Orlando signaled everything I’d ever wanted as a soccer fan and marked my slow fading interest in the European leagues.
I tuned in this season for a host of reasons. I have a bit more free time since I’ve wrapped up my graduate studies, I’m still buzzing from an exciting World Cup, and new legal streaming options have made it easier. Mostly though it is because my family and closest friends are all massive Premier League fans. With those variables in place, I settled in to watch Manchester United vs. Leicester City.
I was immediately confronted with every argument I’ve had with both friends and internet strangers about how much better the EPL was. The fans are louder, the stadiums fuller, the play faster, and the tactics better. By considerable margins at that. None of that mattered to me, as I was stuck with my biggest issue with it all. I couldn’t care less what happened in the game. I was a knowledgeable but dispassionate viewer.
Viewing MLS and Orlando City through this lens of a Premier League game, I was of course reminded of all the critiques. The play is sloppy, less tactical, and slower. The league operates like a dictatorship and the refereeing is often questionable. Watching Manchester United against Leicester City, I was confronted with how misguided every point I’d been fighting for the past six years was wrong. My Premier League-only friends, who constantly berate me for my interest in MLS, were all right about both the quality of the English game as well as their critiques of MLS. I found myself with the most unstable of grounds to stand on.
None of that mattered to me though, because if I can’t make a passionate connection with teams across an ocean, then why does it matter how good they are? I love Orlando City, and by default MLS, because I passionately want them to do well. My heart swells for goals and aches for losses. My blood boils from bad calls and opposition goals. The badge says Orlando; my city, my home. The sports “we/us” applies because this is about “us” when “we” win, lose, or draw. That’s what local soccer is all about, and I love that.
I’ve always advocated for the right to enjoy soccer differently — that some fans want to stand and sing in “The Wall” while others want to munch a salad from the expensive seats. It isn’t my job, or anyone else’s, to tell you how you should enjoy the game. That said, I won’t detract from anyone who emotionally attaches to teams in Europe. I just can’t do it. I know that now, and I have to be honest about it.
I’m going to try to continue tuning into the Premier League. As a lifelong soccer fan, of course I can find some enjoyment in literally any moment two sets of players put on different colored shirts and start kicking a ball. So many of you are two- or three-team supporters. Maybe I can rekindle an interest in the fortunes of Manchester United or find a bit of excitement for another former favorite, Cardiff City? That said, nothing can replace the emotions and passions of an Orlando City game day for me.