Last Saturday, I realized one of my life’s dreams — attending my first Premier League match: Norwich City at Arsenal.
Of course, you would get a broadly similar experience going to, say, an NFL game; the atmosphere is that same sense of a state fair combined with a life-or-death battle.
But for me, a longtime Premier League fan who has never been to England before, it was impossible not to feel like every moment was straight out of a dream — stepping off the Tube at Arsenal station, buying a scarf from a stand in the street, even climbing the steps to the famous North Bank stand. It all felt straight out of a fantasy.
Maybe the best way to explain what the Premier League is like is a quick anecdote. While Norwich is struggling to avoid being relegated, Arsenal fans’ discontent with their team is running high. After a first half in which Arsenal held the ball for comfortably 75 percent of the play, but the Gunners failed to so much as put a single shot on target, one middle-aged man in my section had enough shortly into the second half.
After another endless series of Arsenal passes that failed to make any progress toward the goal, he stood up and bellowed despairingly, “Go FORWARD!” drawing chuckles from people around me.
It was an example of what, to me, is one of the chief things that turns American soccer fans into fans of European soccer. Apart from a handful of middle-aged people in the Dark Clouds section at Minnesota United games, you don’t get much in the way of older fans who are into the game enough to loudly berate the team.
That all-consuming multigenerational fandom feels important, in a way that American soccer culture doesn’t, at least not yet. It’s no wonder some fans look across the Atlantic.
Ever since the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup, when it became clear that MLS was not going to fail and that English soccer would be a legitimate other option for American soccer fans, many people have wondered when, if ever, American soccer will catch up to its counterpart from across the pond. England always will have a century-long head start over America in soccer history, but what really gives them the advantage is that multigenerational fan culture.
Today’s American teams generally have their die-hards concentrated in groups of youngish fans who wave flags and sing and cheer — and yes, berate the home side for poor play.
Someday those fans will have children and grandchildren, who grew up going to soccer games with dad and granddad, who saw their older relatives grumbling (or shouting) about the on-field action. America may never catch up financially to the Premier League, nor is soccer likely to supplant football or baseball or any of the other major American sports.
But you will know that soccer is catching up when it’s not just young people who are wearing scarves and shouting at officials.
• Much was made of a supposed stadium-wide fan protest against Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger, with signs handed out that were to be held up 12 minutes from the beginning and end of the game, in reference to the 12 seasons since the Gunners last won the title. In the event, perhaps 200 signs were held up, and any verbal protest was drowned out by most of the stadium singing “There’s only one Arsene Wenger.” Clearly the manager still retains plenty of support.
• Leicester City officially clinched the Premier League title Monday evening, and it’s hard to describe just how taken with the Foxes everyone in England is.
The sports sections of every paper could be confused with the most prolific of Leicester fan newsletters; even days later, every edition still contained pages and pages of coverage.
• Give Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp a ton of credit. He hasn’t even been on the job for a full season yet, and he already seems to have remade the Reds into his preferred high-energy style. Liverpool has reached the final of the Europa League; if it can knock off Sevilla, Klopp will have already taken Liverpool back into the Champions League.
Weekend watch guide
• Bundesliga: Bayer Leverkeusen at Borussia Monchengladbach, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Fox Soccer Plus. Monchengladbach climbed back into the Champions League places last weekend, thanks to a draw with Bayern Munich and the continuation of now fifth-place Hertha Berlin’s collapse. The Foals host red-hot Bayer Leverkeusen, which has won six straight.
• Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester City, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. What once looked like a potential title decider is now a Champions League qualifier. Arsenal has once again collapsed down the stretch, but to miss out on the Champions League for the first time since 1997 would be an extra-special collapse. Manchester City, too, needs points.
• MLS: New England Revolution at LA Galaxy, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Los Angeles endured a few stutter-steps at the beginning of the year, but as with seemingly every Bruce Arena-managed side, has transitioned to become a well-oiled machine. The Revolution has struggled mightily, but a win in Los Angeles could help right the ship.
• NWSL: Seattle at Orlando, 4 p.m. Sunday, YouTube.com. It took only one match for Orlando to wrest the title of “best-attended NWSL team” away from Portland. More than 23,000 fans showed up for the Pride’s opener, and crowds should turn out again for a visit from Seattle. Orlando needs a win to get on track, even this early in the season.