Soul of soccer survives in Florida
One of the most appealing aspects of football is that, unlike with most sports, you can find the passion of the game in almost every corner of the world, often hidden away in the most unlikely places.
What separates football from, say Formula One or tennis, is that even at the lower levels of the game you can still get the buzz of being a fan even without the top stars or the fully-serviced facilities.
On Saturday, after a long wait, I got my fix again watching Miami FC.
Before I began reporting on games for Reuters, I had spent most of my life watching lower level football as part of small but committed crowds in my native England and later in Hungary.
Having never been a regular visitor to Old Trafford or Anfield, I never missed the absence of a big crowd, wasn’t put off by the shambles of organisation, the crumbling stadiums in Eastern Europe, the lack of mass media interest or the knowledge that the players I was watching weren’t a patch on those who turn out in the Champions League.
Living in Florida for the past two years, I’ve had no choice but to watch games on television and take my live fix from other sports –- mostly NFL at Dolphin Stadium. I like the domestic Major League Soccer and think it is a better league than many give it credit for, but, while it was encouraging to watch 35,000 turn out for Seattle Sounders’ first game in the league against New York Red Bulls last month, I was a passive observer in my living room.
As I wrote here last month, South Florida football fans had hoped that the ambitious plan of a Bolivian businessman and Spanish club Barcelona to launch a Major League Soccer team in Miami would come to fruition. In the end it come to nothing, leaving fans frustrated that a city that has such soccer potential remained without a top flight professional team. If anything the failed bid did more harm than good to the reputation of US soccer in this heavily Latin American populated area –- just more ‘hype’ that proved to be without real foundation.
I ended that post by noting that the region actually had a professional team, Miami FC, who play in the United Soccer Leagues Division One, the tier below MLS, and expressed the hope that fans would now rally behind that team, whose owners had threatened to pull the plug on the venture. On Saturday, Miami opened their USL1 campaign against the Cleveland City Stars and –- as I had promised myself — I went along.
As part of the attempt to kick some life into a team that has utterly failed to capture the imagination of all but the most hardcore soccer fans in Miami, the club’s owners chose to play at Lockhart Stadium in the adjacent city of Fort Lauderdale, nearly an hour’s drive from downtown Miami but a venue with strong significance and historical resonance for the area’s fans.
Lockhart is often called the first soccer specific stadium in the United States. In the days of the New York Cosmos and the heady but short-lived era of the North American Soccer League (NASL) most teams played in venues designed for gridiron American football or college athletics venues, but the Fort Lauderdale Strikers played in the compact Lockhart that feels like a proper football ground.
When Gordon Banks, the great English goalkeeper, was talking to American clubs about a move Stateside, he reportedly had offers from the Cosmos and other teams with big budgets but chose the Strikers because, according to fans, Lockhart “felt like home” to him.
Before kick-off on Saturday, hats were doffed to some of the favourites from Lockhart’s past who came on to the field before kick off.
We saw former Newcastle United player Ray Hudson, a fixture with the Strikers, later manager of the short-lived Miami Fusion MLS team that played in Lauderdale and currently commentator on Gol Tv, Teofilo Cubillas, the great Peruvian performer in the 1978 World Cup (no football loving Scotsman will ever forget his name) who near the end of his career played for a variety of ill-fated soccer clubs in South Florida and Colombian Diego Serna, the last and arguably only hero of the Fusion now back as a 35-year-old, making his debut for Miami FC.
Fort Lauderdale fans, known as ‘Striker Likers’ back in the day, were treated to plenty of top quality footballers over the years. As well as Banks and Cubillas, the Irishman George Best escaped the scrutiny of Manchester to enjoy the latter days of his career in the sunshine, and the magnificent German World Cup winner Gerd Mueller and the classy Polish midfielder Kazimierz Deyna also played for the Strikers.
The names on opposing teams were even more impressive. The Cosmos had Pele and Franz Beckenbauer; while Johann Cruyff was with the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats. Consider those names for a moment when people snigger about the NASL. The club averaged crowds over 14,000 in 1980 which was pretty close to full and there was a Florida derby against the Tampa Bay Rowdies featuring the always-entertaining Rodney Marsh.
After the collapse of the NASL, Lockhart was home to the Miami Fusion with Colombian Carlos Valderrama the star attraction — before MLS’s decision to temporarily reduce the size of the league at the end of the 2001 season, cutting Miami and Tampa. Hudson’s Fusion were averaging a healthy average of over 11,000 –- not bad at all at the stage of the league’s development but still not enough to save them from the central committee’s ruling from above.
Miami FC have never got close to those sort of crowds. Playing their first three seasons in Miami itself, it was only the time when Brazilian Romario turned out for the club that brought in decent attendances. Last year a few hundred watched most games.
With the club’s future brought into doubt and with little promotion of the move to Fort Lauderdale, there was a worry that my Saturday night would be spent with a few football obsessives sat among the relatives of no-name players in an almost empty stadium.
My pessimism was misplaced.
For a start, I had to look for a parking place and there were queues to enter the stadium. The smell of fresh-grilled kebabs and arepas wafted into the North Stand. Having found a couple of friends in the crowd, we sat close by to the ‘Miami Ultras’, who were banging out rhythms on drums, waving flags and cheering on the Blues. There were around 2,000 of us in the only stand that was opened –- we stared out at empty seats but as one friend pointed out, it somehow felt like being in a crowd five times that size.
Serna was outstanding. In the seven years since the Fusion folded, he has wandered around the MLS and Central America, failing to make an impact at club after club but now he was back home and it showed.
The crowd cheered him from the outset and clearly bursting with emotion he belied his age by darting across the frontline, a constant threat, with a light touch, an intelligent eye and as he showed when he put Miami 2-1 up, a natural goalscorer’s finish. Every team needs a crowd favourite and it took just 45 minutes to confirm that whatever else they lack, Miami have a talisman.
The half-time sausage sandwich was of the Colombian spicy variety rather than the bland hotdog type found at the baseball or NFL stadium. The crowd was a remarkable mix –- young Latinos getting a taste of the kind of atmosphere their fathers from Argentina, Colombia or Brazil had told them about; older Lauderdale residents who had been at Lockhart when Best and Mueller produced their magic and there was a good smattering of Fusion shirts on display and a few expat Englishmen reliving the football experience they left behind when they moved to Florida.
It was noisy and fun. It was a proper football crowd and much as I enjoy the NFL and NBA experience I didn’t miss the loud musical interludes, the cheerleaders or the constant time-outs.
Miami won 3-1 and the players, looking somewhat startled by the response of the crowd, took a bow in front of the North Stand. It really didn’t matter that the other three stands were empty, or that the crowd was the lowest in the USL1 that weekend -– a few weeks ago, with Miami’s future in doubt, none of these players had contracts, now they were professional footballers and they were being applauded, their efforts appreciated.
The next Miami match will be played at the FIU college stadium in Miami, as the club is rotating fixtures to see if it can find fans in both cities, but I have a feeling that the heartbeat of South Florida football was found on Saturday at Lockhart. The history is there and on Saturday, Serna, like a ghost of that soccer past, brought it back to life.
That American soccer history, which seems of strangely little interest to the modern-day MLS’s marketing men, lives on in plenty of places in the States.
Next year, the Tampa Bay Rowdies will be reborn as a USL team, raising the prospect of the return of the Florida derby. You can bet every effort will be made to get Rodney Marsh on the pitch for the first kick-off.
The Seattle Sounders, another great name from the NASL days, are in MLS this year, officially an ‘expansion team’, in reality a rebirth of a club that had never lost its place in the affections of fans in the Pacific Northwest.
For all the obvious weaknesses of the NASL project, which ended with the collapse of the league, the glory years showed there is a place for soccer in the U.S. -– just as some of the better MLS teams prove that while the sport may never capture the same mass audience as the NFL or baseball, a healthy niche market exists.
One night at Lockhart Stadium was enough to show that even in South Florida, snubbed by MLS and ultimately let-down by Barcelona, passion for football has survived and there is the potential to become something much bigger.
Maybe Miami FC will follow the Strikers, the Fusion, The Toros, The Sharks, The Freedom and The Sun as yet another ultimately failed football venture in this region. Or perhaps USL will become an increasingly significant alternative to MLS in the large swathes of the country where there is no top-flight franchise present, helping produce greater interest in the Miami team. Then again, perhaps an MLS franchise will after all be created sometime in the future, despite league commissioner Don Garber’s view that South Florida is “a soccer market but not yet an MLS market”.
But an uncertain future, the acknowledgement that as a supporter you run the risk of great disappointment, of years of frustration but at the same time have the chance of being part of a wonderful journey, is the fate of being a football fan away from the highest level, anywhere.
Even in the fragile world of American soccer.