MLS Road Trip Flashback Part 2 -- The Cross-Country Drive
The short of it: during the summer of 2012, a few friends and I traveled to 14 different MLS games in 12 different cities over the course of 53 days in order to fulfill my college requirements by embarking on a massive journalistic endeavor.
As always, unless otherwise noted, the photos in these posts come courtesy of the excellent Dan Perlea.
For each post, I'll highlight 1-4 of the 14 games we attended on the trip. Please note that some of the quotes may not be 100 percent accurate, as I'm working off four-year-old notes and memory at some points.
This portion of the trip went as follows:
June 21/22: Drive from Seattle to Milwaukee, 1,992 miles
June 23: Drive from Milwaukee to Chicago and back, 184 miles, Chicago Fire 2 - Columbus Crew 1
June 26: Drive from Milwaukee to Montreal, 950 miles
June 27: Montreal Impact 0 - Toronto FC 3
Total: 7 days, 2 games, 6 goals, 3,310 miles
I don't remember exactly how the idea of driving straight from Seattle to Milwaukee came up, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We left the Northwest early that morning, planning to stop for the night somewhere around Bismarck, N.D., a 1,185-mile drive.
But as I mentioned in previous pieces, Dan Perlea LOVES to drive, so much so that as we approached Bismarck around 11:00 p.m., he said asked me something like, "Want to just try to get there in one sitting?"
Our destination was just another 762 miles down the road, so I said something like, "Yeah, why not?" We'd be just short of Chicago after this drive, staying at my brother's wife's apartment in Milwaukee while my brother finished up graduate school in Southern California.
Hopped up on Golazo and adrenaline, Perlea lasted behind the wheel all the way until the Twin Cities, nearly 1,700 miles and 24 hours after we set off. An exhausted Perlea -- we probably shouldn't have let him drive for that long, but he insisted -- then crawled into the passenger seat for the final 300-plus miles of the drive. To get you an idea of his state of mind at that moment, I snapped this photo of him before taking the wheel (apologies for the quality, but it's a must-see):
"It felt like a beautiful exhaustion," Perlea joked with me in a text this week. "I was ready for a perfect death. I remember hitting Minneapolis, on the freeway, and thinking to myself that the ghosts were really trying to screw with me. At that moment, I thought I was going to kill us all. That's when we decided to switch.
"But I still remember feeling incredibly disappointed that I didn't make it all the way."
Whenever people tell me that I'm crazy for driving from Northern California to Seattle or Los Angeles for soccer, I tell them about this 30-hour trek. Nothing makes a two-hour drive feel like a whip around the block like that craziness does.
Arriving in Milwaukee mid-afternoon, we met up with Chicago Fire founder Peter Wilt, who gave us some inside stories on the club over pizza. Wilt proudly displayed his 1998 MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup championship ring with a smile that quickly turned into a look of sorrow, revealing his thoughts on his controversial exit from the Fire.
He quickly lightened up though, making small talk through jokes about the over-sized ring. "My wife likes to tell me that that's not the most important ring I own," he laughed, pointing to his wedding band.
We shared stories, then agreed to meet up the following day at The Globe for the Spain - France Euro 2012 quarterfinal. For a variety of logistical reasons, that meeting never happened, but Wilt left us with an eclectic pile of soccer souvenirs -- the one that stays with me being a "Schlabst" pint glass.
According to Wilt's Wikipedia page, a "Schlabst" is Milwaukee's version of the Black and Tan, invented by Wilt himself at The Highbury Pub, a popular soccer bar in the city. Instead of mixing the cocktail with Guinness Stout and your favorite pale ale though, a "Schlabst" is created by filling one's glass halfway with Schlitz and the rest of the way with Pabst.
Wilt carefully pointed out that the line drawn on the glass for where to stop Schlitzing and start PBRing was incorrect due to a mistake when ordering them. We'd have to pour slightly more Schlitz than the glass instructed, he told us apologetically.
Instead of watching that Euro game with Wilt, we met up a family of travelling soccer supporters from Des Moines, Tanya Keith, Doug Jotzke, and their young son, Raphael.
Keith, who later wrote a book chronicling her support for the various United States national teams, told me two things that afternoon over Bloody Mary's that still stick with me today.
She first recalled the hilarious story of Doug forgetting to request their 10th wedding anniversary off from his professional refereeing schedule. Naturally, Keith turned up in the stands at Providence Park where Jotzke was officiating a Timbers game, and led Timbers Army chants against her husband for the memory slight.
Second, she explained how she was able to travel with her grade school-aged kids to supporters sections around the country, while introducing them to that kind of an environment in a mature manner. It was simple, she told me. Rather than ignore the "F-bombs" that fans would inevitably scream in unison, she explained to her children that that language was appropriate, but only inside the stadium. As someone who dislikes censorship in general, but understands its place in some parts of society, I always appreciated Keith's use of "stadium language" with her kids in teaching them about different situations in adult society.
We still had a game to catch as the Chicago Fire took on Midwest rival Columbus Crew later that night in Bridgeview, Ill. Chicago Fire fans get a lot of crap, especially as of late, but here's my defense for them:
1. Bridgeview is a full 16 miles southwest of Chicago proper, lying in a wasteland of rubble. There's nothing to do in the area, and the Fire stadium isn't accessible via public transportation. Out of any stadium we visited on the trip, only the location of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. ranked worse in my estimation.
2. Since Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco left the Fire following the 2009 MLS season, the club has been one of the worst in the league. From 2010-2015, the Fire posted a 63-75-62 record, good for 1.255 points per game. They made the playoffs just once in that six-season stretch, losing in a solitary knockout round game. At publication time, the 2016 Chicago Fire sit in dead last of the 20-team MLS standings with a 2-7-5 record. They last won a trophy in 2006, when they lifted the U.S. Open Cup. I get supporting a team no matter what, but at some point it becomes impossible to root for an unwatchable product.
3. Andrew Hauptman is an objectively bad MLS owner -- fans have consistently protested his nearly 10-year run at the top of the franchise.
That being said, the MLS Road Trip crew loved Chicago. We were greeted in the parking lot by the many sub groups of the famous Section 8. You can read Coburn's two stories about Section 8 here and here.
This brings us to Husaria, the Polish contingent of Section 8. I joined Husaria what I thought would be just a drink or two for some pre-match festivities. They said that it was a Polish custom for newcomers to Chicago Fire matches to take a shot of Spirytus Vodka with an established member of the group.
After pouring the clear liquid down my throat, I immediately recoiled as my insides burned. What had I just drank? It wasn't until then that the throng of belly-laughing Polish-Americans explained to me that Spirytus is a 192-proof liquid that just so happens to be illegal in most states. "Gasoline" is not the correct word to describe the flavor of this firewater, as I'm sure even gas doesn't taste this poor.
Because I was 22, I agreed to two more shots with Husaria, and entered the stadium with my head spinning as drunken crazies whispered in my ear to make sure that I paid attention to the stands in roughly the 85th minute.
I remember trying my hardest to concentrate while a Fire PR rep asked me about our trip on the stadium concourse. Luckily I was able to slip away quickly when Marco Pappa scored an absolute laser of a goal in just the second minute of the game.
The Fire cleaned up the match, a 2-1 victory despite playing most of the match down a man. But the real story of the game was the protest that Section 8 put on in the stands late in the match, the moment my new Polish friends had alluded to.
Apparently some members of Husaria had recently partaken in racist behaviors of some sort. The official Husaria response: protest against their own fans. First came the above banner, showing the group's zero-tolerance stance on any lack of tolerance.
Then they set Section 8 on fire.
Not literally -- just flares were used. But it made for a breathtaking sight, one that drew attention to the issue at hand. The photo that Perlea captured is on the shortlist for my favorite of the trip. You can see it on the background of this page, but here it is in full:
As we were alerted that something special would happen late in the game, Perlea aimed his GoPro at the section from the start of the match and hit record. Viewing the event from near the section, Coburn and I captured video of the fire at the Fire game.
With again apologies for the quality, here is a compilation of the protest, starting at the 1:35 mark.
Words can't really do that amazing of a message and protest justice, so I'll move on by simply encouraging you to watch the above video that so clearly demonstrates how soccer fans can be so awesome.
Before the match, with some Section 8 members hearing that Coburn would turn 21 the following Monday, the group invited us to a FIFA tournament at The Globe to celebrate. The capo during that protest, Patrick Stanton, greeted us on the other side of the bar at The Globe two days after the game. He quickly produced his signature concoction of a "Birthday Cake" shot, pouring three on the house for Coburn's milestone day.
The dark confines quickly filled up with Section 8 members, on hand for the tournament, which participants were confined to choosing from European teams to keep with a Euro 2012 theme. If I recall correctly, I chose to play with Spain, and was quickly ousted from the 16-person, single-elimination event.
But Coburn showed much better than me, despite selecting the awful Ireland to proudly display his cultural heritage. Riding the forward partnership of Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle, Coburn knocked off opponent after opponent, taking down Italy, Poland, and England to reach the final against Germany.
With the game tied late, Coburn had a breakaway with Keane, but somehow missed his chance. A Mesut Özil goal in extra time denied Coburn a storybook ending (and a prize of about $20) on his legal drinking birthday.
"Rarely can I play a game of FIFA without thinking of that moment," Coburn recently told me via Facebook message. "I still have that goal in my mind, my run with Keane in the 89th minute barely missing, then Germany winning in extra time after a deflection lands at the foot of Özil for the win.
"It haunts me...that was Ireland's closest moment to glory."
After a few shots of Malört, Chicago's local firewater, we called it a night to prepare for the long drive to Canada.
One last image of Chicago I wanted to include is this one of Sebastián Grazzini, the Fire's Argentine playmaker. Just one month after the match, the Fire loaned Grazzini to a small club in his home country. He never really made much of an impact in MLS, but I love this photo, especially for the back story.
I don't recall exactly what the controversy had been, but Grazzini took this corner kick in front of Sector Latino, the Spanish-speaking supporters group that stood on the opposite end of Section 8. For that reason I can't remember, Sector Latino was upset with management of the club, leading Grazzini to show that he was with his Latino brethren during the match.
Anyway, it was the morning after Coburn's 21st birthday and we had 950 miles between Montreal and us. After hitting stop-and-go traffic in the parking lot that is the Chicago Loop, it was smooth sailing all the way until the Ambassador Bridge just outside of Detroit.
Leaving the United States for the first time, I distinctly remember the feeling of disappointment when I found out that traveling to Canada via an automobile didn't award me a stamp in my new passport.
Turning off the data on our smartphones, we lost ourselves in Ontario, both literally and figuratively. The lushness surrounded by Tim Hortons caught my eye, while we stopped at a gas station to purchase a map of Ontario that didn't even take us to our final destination of Montreal.
As the only "French speaker" on the trip, it was my job to make arrangements once we arrived in Québec. Again because I was 22, I failed to do so before leaving a country where we enjoyed reasonably-priced access to the Internet via smartphone. Amid the pouring rain and darkness, we drove aimlessly in circles, attempting to find a vacancy.
When we finally reached a hotel, I asked in French if there were any rooms available, only I used the wrong version of the French word for "room."
"What?" the confused concierge responded to me in English. "No, we have no vacancies."
Frustrated, Perlea bit the bullet and turned on his data, booking us in an overpriced room on the outskirts of the city. We then pulled up a laptop and booked a room in a better location for a better price. As Bill Simmons would say, "The lesson, as always: I'm an idiot."
The rested crew set out the next afternoon for a local watering hole to watch Spain dispatch Portugal on penalties in the Euro semifinal while sampling poutine. What struck me at the bar wasn't the dish -- I wasn't a fan -- but that of the amount of languages spoken around me.
We always like to think of the United States as a diverse place, but globally, we rank in the middle of the pack when it comes to diversity from an ethnic standpoint, according to The Washington Post. That same link suggests that Canada is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, a fact that my anecdotal evidence supported.
During the match, I overheard bits and pieces of French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, and several other languages I didn't recognize.
After the Spain victory, one problem remained: multiple emails and tweets had left us at an impasse with contacts with the reclusive Ultras Montreal supporters group. Arriving at the stadium only just in time for the match (I got us lost trying to navigate the local metro), I quickly set out to try to make contacts for our return trip the following week.
The Impact had just signed an aging Marco Di Vaio, and oddly, an Italian expat gushed over the signing: he would now support Montreal's 2012 MLS expansion team because of Di Vaio. I use the word "oddly" because we made eye contact at the urinals in Stade Saputo, and he immediately expressed his exuberance to me in English.
Canada is weird.
Behind quality performances high-priced Designated Players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, Toronto FC outshone Di Vaio's debut in a famous 3-0 away win in the 401 Derby.
Having lost all confidence in my French due to the hotel room fiasco, I approached several Ultras after the game, addressing them in English. With annoyed looks, they all shook their heads and pointed me to another person. After pissing off four or five Francophones, one reluctantly agreed to meet me the following week before the game for an interview.
Though exhausted and grumpy, we headed for a night on the town, where I was again embarrassed by asking a bartender in French to pour me the best glass of Québécois wine they had in the house. She first looked confused, but then when I asked again, she roared in laughter.
There is no wine made in Québec, she told me. Or at least not any good wine.
So she made me a mojito and I drank it.