MLS Road Trip Flashback: The Introduction
In the summer of 2012, I was a confused 22-year-old with no plans for my future. I didn't know much about the world -- I just knew that I loved soccer. Four years later, I still like to think that I don't know much about the world, but I know a great deal more. And I still love soccer.
I had one quarter left in college that fall thanks to taking a creative writing class rather than a class that counted towards my degree, so I wasn't forced to go out into the real world and find a job just yet.
As a journalism student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, I wasn't sure that I wanted to move into writing full time. I was lost. I had chosen to attend SOU at random. After two years of community college and a guaranteed transfer agreement to UC Davis, I picked up the first brochure in a stack that my mom had saved after I took the practice SAT in high school. The Southern Oregon University brochure somehow made its way into my hands. That would be my college, I decided then and there.
When I arrived on campus in 2010, I followed suit in picking a major in the same way that I picked the school: at random. Journalism it would be. Why not? I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I figured that I might as well get a degree while attempting to garner credit from watching sports as much as possible.
It took me until this past spring to finally decide that I wanted to move into writing full time, but the summer of 2012 was the first step towards that decision. In order to graduate, each journalism student had to complete a "capstone" project that showed a comprehensive understanding of the journalistic skills learned throughout the duration of the program.
There were two options for completing such a project:
1. Join the "capstone" class and complete a larger group project such as writing a series of articles on the homeless population in Ashland (I believe this was what the graduating class before mine did).
2. Propose your own "capstone" project.
I don't remember when I got the idea, but my mind quickly shifted to the latter. My proposal: drive across the country with a few others and cover as many Major League Soccer games as possible.
Only, I didn't want to cover the games, or the players -- people were already doing that. I wanted to cover the fans.
Our website somehow still exists to this day, but the memories and friendships I made during the trip are the true documentation of our work.
Facebook has recently been sending me notifications of the memories from that trip four years ago, so I figured that I'd use this space to reflect on them. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing my memories of the trip.
After my proposal was accepted by the SOU journalism department I worked full time for six months at the school cafeteria, while taking double the regular class load to save money and prepare for the trip ahead.
Those were some of the hardest days of my life, but they helped teach me that I never wanted to work at a job in which I wasn't allowed to think for myself. I constantly butted heads with management, who wanted robots to work for them, even though we worked on a campus that valued critical thinking.
Finally, I got through it, saving around $5,000 to invest on myself on the trip. My goal was to come out of it with a job offer. That didn't happen, but I don't regret a single minute of my journey.
Our schedule was condensed -- we hit up 14 games in 12 different cities over 53 days. Below are the fixtures (home team is listed first):
June 17: LA Galaxy 1 - Portland Timbers 0
June 23: Chicago Fire 2 - Columbus Crew 1
June 27: Montreal Impact 0 - Toronto FC 3
June 30: D.C. United 3 - Montreal Impact 0
July 21: Columbus Crew 1 - D.C. United 0
August 5: Portland Timbers 1 - FC Dallas 1
On June 15, 2012, my crew and I set out for the first leg of the trip: driving from Davis to Los Angeles for two games. Travelling with me were some of my best friends and some amazing people to work with.
Except when otherwise notified, Dan Perlea took all the photos that will run in this series. You can view his work at Dan Perlea Photography here.
I chose to include Perlea's photo of the Crew's Nordecke at the top of this post because I never did a story on that supporters group. I was too burnt out from the trip and if I do have a regret from our time on the road, it's not giving that underrated supporters club the story they deserve.
"It's often easy to dismiss U.S. soccer as second class in terms of its fandom," Perlea texted me recently when I asked him about his experiences on the trip. "After driving 15,000 miles, watching 14 games, and meeting supporter groups from nearly every MLS team, I can't in good conscience consider the fans anything other than top notch.
"I was most impressed by the respect shown by many supporters groups toward supporters of the opposing teams. Their warm and inviting nature made me feel at home regardless of what city we were in."
Perlea was a real asset to the project -- no one else involved could have given it the visual imagery that was necessary. He also LOVES to drive, which helped us on some of the longer sections of our trip across two countries.
Born in Romania, Perlea is a lifelong soccer fan who moved to the United States in 1986 as a refugee to escape the terrible dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Perlea's beloved Steaua București won the European Cup that year, but Romania was in shambles and three years later, Ceaușescu was executed by his own citizens while Perlea's grade school classmates teased him for his accent and called him a spy.
A lot has happened since then, but I never would have known these things about Perlea if it weren't for the many conversations we had while driving through what seemed like the middle of nowhere. You can now find Perlea at Bonney Field every weekend, supporting Sacramento Republic FC.
The other person to share the tiny space of my 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid was fellow SOU journalism student, Jake Coburn. I've mostly lost touch with Coburn, who is now the Sports Information Director at Multnomah University in Portland, but his reporting and stories were valuable to the cause as well.
Unfortunately unable to attend any actual matches was my good friend Will Robinson, now a writer for Entertainment Weekly. Robinson served as the managing editor for the website, working tirelessly and at weird hours from a remote site to polish Coburn's and my writing.
Robinson's voice is all over most of my work, as I usually send him my stuff when I need feedback. We joke that he's my "life editor," a joke that we can continue as he's signed on to copy edit my upcoming book on Sacramento Republic FC. (Editor's note: I've made a huge mistake.) Check out his latest EW piece, on the character Han from the Fast and Furious film franchise.
Three other people joined us for some of the trip: my best friend and older brother, Matt Ream, my favorite road trip buddy, Nick Gallaudet, and the indescribable Russell Jordan
Matt is the reason I fell in love with soccer in the first place. Though he now lives in Des Moines, where he serves as a youth soccer coach and the father of two beautiful girls, we usually find the time to chat once or twice a week. He's very opinionated, which I think helps my writing a ton because he's always able to give me the perspective of a coach. Matt joined us for the first West Coast section of the trip before meeting us in Kansas City as he was on his way to move from Orange County to Milwaukee.
Gallaudet is my go-to guy for road trips. A Timbers fan since the inaugural MLS season, Gallaudet drove up with me to Portland in 2011 for my first ever visit to Providence Park. Since then, we've gone together to more MLS games, U.S. National Team games, and recently a Republic game in Reno. His parents, Debbie Davis and Bruce Gallaudet, are also huge influences in my life. Davis is the Editor in Chief of The Davis Enterprise, and Gallaudet is my co-worker in the sports department. Gallaudet joined up for the West Coast portion of the trip, including the Portland Timbers game.
Lastly, Jordan is one of my friends from high school. I spent most of high school and community college watching the USMNT with Jordan in his air-conditioned free garage just a few miles from where I lived. The sound we collectively made when Benny Feilhaber scored THAT goal probably scared a few neighbors. Jordan used to visit me every day at my high school job at the batting cages, where we'd talk soccer and discuss the U.S. chances at whatever upcoming tournament they were set to play in. Like Gallaudet, Jordan rode with us for the three early West Coast games, and the late Timbers game.
Over the next few days, I'll revisit the sights and sounds of likely the most important trip I've ever taken. Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen, especially those listed above. I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for this trip, and therefore, you guys.