World Class Soccer in the U.S.A.

TV Features

I’d like to say I’ve been a Manchester City fan since they played the Atlanta Chiefs back in 1968. But I wasn’t even born then. Truth is, I’ve been a Manchester City fan for exactly one year, when I went to the Manchester International Festival and just, well, sort of decided to pull for them. I’d assumed I was going to run into a bunch of Manchester United fans, but my hosts explained that everyone in the city was a City fan. I said, offhandedly, that I was now a City fan too.

I just didn’t realize how quickly I’d fall for a team or for a sport. Coming home just in time for the start of the season, I found out that many English Premiere League games were on TV. I sprung for a $5/month package from Comcast that included Fox Soccer Net (and GoalTV, if I wanted to watch German and Italian games). Plus ESPN2 began carrying a handful of games.

People have gotten addicted to crack more slowly. Even I was puzzled as to how I could care this much about a team that I didn’t know a thing about months earlier. When they lost to Tottenham, missing that 4th spot in the Champions League (Europe’s highest level of club soccer), I felt like the Braves had just lost to the Mets or UGA had just lost to Auburn and missed a chance at the Sugar Bowl. But these were teams I followed for decades—my whole life in the case of the Braves. What was going on?

Really, what I’d fallen in love with is soccer. I even began playing in a local rec league out at Atlanta’s Silverbacks Park. Then the World Cup arrived, and I watched every match I could. But my jaw dropped when I learned that Manchester City, whose every player I would recognize on the street, was headed to Atlanta for an exhibition game.

The Atlanta International Soccer Challenge was played last night between Manchester City and Club América at the Georgia Dome. Tuesday night, I headed down to watch both teams practice on the grass that had just been laid atop NFL turf for the indoor pitch. I got to see players like Shay Given, Adam Johnson, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry and the newly arrived Yaya Toure up-close. I saw Steven Ireland smoke a wicked shot past Given in a scrimmage and English national goalie Joe Hart make diving stops until his face was covered in grass. I got my picture taken with Sean Wright-Phillips and Adam Johnson, trying to let them know that they had fans on this side of the Atlantic. They reduced me to fan-boy mode in a way that few musicians or actors ever have (Patty Griffin and Scarlett Johansson come to mind).

Sadly, the game itself wasn’t very well attended—just over 30,000 announced, but I’m not sure where they were hiding. I’d love to see Atlanta attract an MLS team or be part of the U.S.’s 2018/2022 bid for the World Cup, but we need to be able to bring more fans out to watch top-flight soccer first. It’s a pity because the game was a lot of fun. Johnson was fouled after keeping the ball away from three defenders in the box, and Adebayor knocked home the penalty kick. Club América equalized just moments into the second half. At least three more shots ricocheted off the posts before the 1-1 draw went to penalties. Given, who’s battling the young up-start Hart for the starting job, made two fantastic saves, and French legend Patrick Vieira sealed the win. Even the lingering vuvuzelas couldn’t spoil the fun.

The season starts back in a couple of weeks. Backed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the club has spent over $100 million on players this summer, which should give them a real shot at the League title. But that’s not why I follow City. I follow them because they’re the team that made me a soccer fan. Now excuse me, I’ve got a game tonight…

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