MLS Road Trip Flashback: Part 3 -- Traversing the Eastern Seaboard
Welcome to (I should have a more engaging introduction by this point, shouldn't I?) part 3 of my MLS Road Trip flashback, looking back on the 53-day road trip my friends and I took in the summer of 2012. During the trip, we attended 14 different MLS games in 12 different cities.
If you missed my introduction to the series, you can find that here, as well as part 1 here and part 2 here. As always, unless otherwise stated, the photos in this series were provided by 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.
We left off in Montreal, where I was struggled with both my French speaking and logistical planning. Luckily, we were now headed to my Aunt Margaret's house just outside of Washington D.C for the next segment of our journey.
This portion of the trip went as follows:
June 29: Drive from Montreal to Washington D.C., 584 miles
June 30: D.C. United 3 - Montreal Impact 0
July 3: Drive from Washington D.C. to Montreal, 584 miles
July 4: Montreal Impact 1 - Sporting Kansas City 3
July 5: Drive from Montreal to Québec City, 159 miles
July 6: Drive from Québec City to Boston via Maine, 382 miles
July 8: New England Revolution 2 - New York Red Bulls 0
Total: 10 days, 3 games, 9 goals, 1,709 miles
At this point, driving 584 miles in one sitting felt like one, maybe two, blinks of the eye. You know, assuming that we weren't driving in a hurricane warning. Which we were.
On our way from Montreal to Washington D.C., winds picked up to the point where most cars on the freeway pulled over to the shoulder, lest they be blown into an accident while moving.
But we were less than an hour away, and we had Dan Perlea at the wheel. I don't know how he did it, but Perlea navigated the torrential downpours, heavy winds, and inevitable scattered debris to help us arrive safely at our destination. A destination with no power.
I enjoyed the electricity-free home though, as my family got to meet Perlea and Jake Coburn over candlelit craft beers in their basement. It was a much-needed quiet and peaceful night afterwards.
The photo at the top of this post? That came from the next day, when the storm had cleared to reveal 100-plus degree temperatures combined with what felt like 1,000 percent humidity.
If you've been to RFK Stadium, you know that it smells like cat piss, but RFK Stadium with standing water the night after a near-hurricane? That smells more like your college freshman dorm roommate's vomit after they decide it's a good idea to drink Bacardi 151 for the first time.
In spite of the whiffs of urine and throw-up though, United fans packed the stadium after beating the temperatures with water gun fights in the lot.
For that match, Coburn partied with what's widely considered to be the first true supporters group in the Untied States, La Barra Brava. Almost every other supporters group had nothing but good things to say about La Barra Brava -- for many of them, it was the only other group they respected at all. You can read Coburn's original story here. I hung out with the much newer District Ultras, which you can read about here.
It's interesting looking back on this in 2016 as much of D.C. United's support has waned for a variety of reasons. There's the aforementioned piss-smell that wafts around the crumbling stadium (and continued road blocks of the ever-promised new stadium). There's the team's general poor play and low-budget roster. There's also the club treatment of District Ultra Matt Parsons.
Pictured above is Parsons, a die hard supporter whom I met that day. This year, Parsons was banned from RFK Stadium for one year for setting off a smoke bomb under a bridge near that stadium's parking lot. I urge you to read Leander Schaerlackens' excellent VICE Sports article describing the situation and examining its repercussions. What's funny -- perhaps funny isn't the correct word -- is that based on Schaerlackens' description of the bridge, I know exactly where it is. I know this because I'm almost positive that Parsons or someone else did the same thing in the same place that night after United's 3-0 victory. Security and fellow fans looked on as if he did nothing wrong, because he did nothing wrong, at least in my interpretation.
Regardless of what rules he may or may not have broken, United's ban of Parsons is completely tone deaf, again as Scharelackens' article suggests. From our few interactions, I have only known Parsons to be a kind individual, who was simply interested in supporting his club. These are the fans MLS needs to cater to, not drive away.
For us, we had just witnessed a second three-goal Montreal loss in a matter of four days. The Impact would treat us to yet another big loss four days later, and then heartbreakingly fall in stoppage time to the Philadelphia Union later during our trip. Shortly after seeing them, Montreal made a late playoff push with a five-game winning streak, but they proved awful whenever MLS Road Trip was in the house.
In all, the Impact went 0-4 with two goals scored and 11 allowed when we saw them in person. Looking through the photos, I noticed that Evan Bush was in goal against D.C. United. Now the unquestioned No. 1 for the Impact, this was Bush's first-ever MLS game. Thanks to the result, he wouldn't get another chance for Montreal until the following season.
Goalkeeper can be a lonely position, and Perlea's haunting photo of Bush picking at the chopped-up RFK turf shows that.
The following day, we watched the final of Euro 2012 in a smoke-filled Turkish hookah bar in Virginia. Though no Spanish was spoken among the Middle Eastern crowd, every spectator in the bar erupted wildly for Spain's four goals as if they were cheering for their own country.
Our second trip to Montreal proved less eventful than the first. Before the Impact's to Sporting Kansas City, we met up with the Ultras Montreal at a bar near Stade Saputo. Other than Perlea taking 10 minutes to obtain a new glass at the bar (the French word "glace" means ice), I only remember how little it seemed like the Ultras wanted to speak to me. That being said, I don't know how much different I would have felt if an unknown outsider came in and tried to interview me in my non-native language. You can read my debacle of a story on our meeting here.
I love Montreal and Québec, but there's certainly a feeling of individuality among the locals there. Like Americans demanding that visitors speak English, the Québécois don't exactly hide their distaste for non-French speakers. Still, I find the province's license plate-adorned motto of "Je me souviens" (I remember) beautiful for whatever reason.
Fourth of July in Montreal brought a Jazz festival, and therefore packed streets, so we shimmied up northeast a few hours to Québec City for a night. I don't have the photos to prove it, but Québec City is one of the most aesthetically pleasing locations I've ever visited. It's expensive as hell ($3 for thimble-sized "mojitos") but totally worth it. Go to Québec City.
After a night of drinking on the town, I made an accidental decision that changed the course of my professional career. It's weird how in retrospect the smallest thing can result in so many future events changing, and this is one of the most prominent "butterfly effects" that I now reflect on. But first, our interaction with a Maine border guard.
We were met with the most stern-looking border guard I've ever seen as we crossed back into the United States. Of the other border guard's I remember from the trip, there was a kind middle-aged woman, a Santa Claus lookalike who smiled and waved us on when we correctly told him the Montreal Impact play at Stade Saputo, and the Toronto based-guard who let us back into Canada without our passports after Perlea accidentally drove us back into the States.
This guard, he must have thought he was stationing a checkpoint in Fallujah. His post was in the middle of nowhere, overgrown grass surrounding a mere kiosk with no civilization for miles on either side. He dressed in military pants tucked into tightly laced combat boots. His tight navy blue shirt -- also tucked in, of course -- showed off his massive biceps and overall impressive physique. He wore sunglasses and a forward-facing baseball cap on his cleanly shaved face. I imagine that if he had removed his hat, he would have revealed a crew cut or something of the like.
And then he started talking to us -- our reaction probably giving him the eventual reason to search our car. As we sat there, expecting a tough scolding from a deep voice, the guard opened his mouth. I don't know if anyone else laughed when he spoke, but I certainly did. He spoke with the pitch of a falsetto, and in a French accent.
There's nothing wrong with either of the above, it was just unexpected. We came to deduce later that he probably originated from Northern Maine, meaning that French may have been his first language. But it was funny, and he was immediately on our case.
"Are you carrying anything that amounts to more than $10,000 in value?" he asked Perlea, who was driving.
"I wish!" Perlea exclaimed.
The guard simply stared at Perlea for what seemed like a minute.
"No," Perlea said, finally breaking the silence.
The guard stayed motionless, as if he were guarding Buckingham Palace.
I finally asked him if he wanted to search the car to check, not expecting him to actually do so. He did, possibly assuming that we were smuggling some kind of drugs. Of course, we weren't, so he reluctantly let us go in the same kind of way that officers in movies reluctantly let known criminals go just because they couldn't find any evidence.
The lesson: don't joke with international security.
I mentioned earlier the decision that changed my future. It was a Friday that we headed from Québec City back down to the States, and we chose a Friday because the New England Revolution played on a Saturday. Only they didn't. Their game was that Sunday.
Again, because I was 22, I didn't do a great job of planning, so that one was my bad. We all expressed disappointment to not getting another possible night in Québec City. Looking to make up for it, I DMed my Midnight Riders contact, Chris Camille. Camille laughed at our situation, then invited us to pickup soccer on the Harvard campus the following morning to pass the time on our newly-found free day.
It was at this pick-up soccer game that I met Hank Alexandre, host of both The Midnight Ride Podcast and The All American Soccer Podcast. The gregarious Alexandre, who cherry picked and scored goals in the same way that Alejandro Moreno scored goals, learned of our story and subsequently invited me on TAASP during the Revolution tailgate. It took me forever to look through the archives of TASSP, but you can listen to that podcast here. Before I get to the significance of that, that soccer game was what finally helped me understand what humidity actually is. I recall mid-afternoon temperatures that day hovering around 75, and so I figured keeping up with a small-sided game would prove a breeze. 10 minutes in and drenched with sweat, I realized how wrong I was. We just don't have humidity like that on the West Coast. And some Portuguese guy screamed at me for getting water during the game while Camille and Alexandre sort of just looked at me and shrugged.
The next day Alexandre and his co-host, Abram Chamberlain, interviewed me in the parking lot of Gillette Stadium. Without mistaking the New England Revolution home dates, I never make that pick-up game. Without that pickup game, I likely never meet Chamberlain. Without never meeting Chamberlain, we likely never start The First Eleven Podcast together. Without starting The First Eleven, I don't think I attain nearly as many of the freelance writing jobs I've gotten such as those at Top Drawer Soccer, Paste Soccer, or MLSSoccer.com.
Chamberlain doesn't know this, but even though we haven't regularly recorded the First Eleven in more than a year, people often mention that podcast as part of the reason why they follow me on social media or decided to approach me for a job. Chamberlain was responsible for -- at the least -- 70 percent of the work on the First Eleven. He picked most of the topics, recorded and edited the show, and in doing so, gave me the legitimacy as a soccer voice that I wouldn't find until The Davis Enterprise hired me in January of 2014. Although, some would argue that I still have yet to reach any level of legitimacy.
So thanks to Camille for inviting me to that pickup game. Thanks to Alexandre for inviting me on his podcast. And thanks to Chamberlain for helping push forward my career.
Chamberlain is a member of the Midnight Riders, though he's currently displaced in the South. Check out his fittingly-hipster summer podcast where he delves into fourth division soccer supporters here.
According to Chamberlain, I best captured the essence of who the Midnight Riders are in my story when I wrote: "The atmosphere is more like a college house party in which everyone knows each other than an English soccer game. The laughs are just as abundant as the songs."
You can read the rest of that story here, but if I can get any message across in this piece, it's that of how underrated the Midnight Riders are. Like I mentioned previously about Section 8, there are so many factors that we fail to take into consideration when we think about the amazing supporters in this country. We look at the mass empty confines of Gillette and compare that to the Providence Park and the Timbers Army.
But not everyone has a Providence Park and not everyone can be the Timbers Army.
Some factors going against Revolution supporters (the parallels to Chicago Fire supporters are eerily similar):
1. Gillette Stadium is more than a 28-mile drive from downtown Boston. No public transportation takes passengers from Boston to Gillette. Before that Revolution game, a throng of supporters chartered a bus from central Boston to the match. According to the Midnight Riders, this was the first time in team history that public transportation had brought fans from Boston to the stadium. That match came roughly 17 years into Revolution history.
2. After fielding one of the best teams in the league during the 2000s, the Revolution posted a 68-85-47 record from 2010-2015, good for just 1.255 points per game. If that last number sounds familiar, that's because it's the exact same ppg that the awful Fire averaged in the same period.
3. The Krafts are objectively indifferent MLS owners. They know that their team would be a hit with its own soccer-specific stadium, but because they own Gillette, they have no actual incentive to build a new stadium.
While we all have the ability to go to Twitter to make fun of the fans in New England or Chicago, know that they exist, and just because they don't fill the stadium every game doesn't make them not loyal. Then-Midnight Rider's board member Joe Butler told me that day that he thought that if there were stadium inside Boston city limits that the Revolution would average 30,000. It's hard not to believe him considering how well attended the city's other sports franchises are.
Back to the game, which you know took place a long time ago because of the buzz during the tailgate -- there was genuine excitement for the Revolution's new Designated Player: Honduran international Jerry Bengtson. New England president Brian Bilello strutted around the parking lot that afternoon, boasting of the signing. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so who can blame Bilello in retrospect? (Tangent: thanks to Bilello, who upon hearing of our trip agreed to buy us lobster rolls, clam chowder, and fried calamari to help introduce us to Boston.)
Bengston scored that day to raucous cheers of "Jerry! Jerry!" in the same way you'd hear that chant when a fight is about to break out on Jerry Springer. The New England exuberance for the new striker turned though as Bengtson quickly became a persona non grata, scoring just two more goals in his three-year Revolution career.
I would say that it was either here or at our next stop in Toronto in which we became fully burnt out. The posts, once numerous and full of detail, dried up. Fewer and fewer people visited the website. The motive of the trip went from exploring to simply surviving. There would be one more amazing night in Toronto in which we did our due diligence as a journalistic output. Then, like Bengtson's MLS career, we might as well have been pictured on an American soccer milk carton.