United in soccer
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The European Soccer Pyramid is full of “hams.” In England, they have football clubs based in Fulham, West Ham, Tottenham, Oldham, Rotherham, Nottingham, Gillingham, and Birmingham.
Meanwhile, here in the North American Pyramid—where towns attached to that particular suffix lay scattered few and far between across the land—the “ham” is conspicuously lacking.
In fact, only one American soccer team that I know of can lay claim to any sort of ham-affiliated home ground at the moment—and they call themselves Bellingham United.
They play in the Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL). Their team colors are black and white. And their nickname—thank the sweet Lord—isn’t the “Hamsters.” It’s the “Hammers.”
Sure, our home team likes to scamper around. But they also like to kick some serious ball.
That’s precisely what I got to watch them do on Cinco de Mayo, when I joined a small but enthusiastic posse of neighbors for a quality afternoon of festive spectatorship in the stands, and in the beer garden, at Civic Stadium.
Truth be told, it had been at least 30 years since I’d attended my first professional-level soccer match on North American soil. I was barely old enough to remember it at the time, but I’ve never forgotten it.
It was a sweltering mid-August afternoon in the late 1970s and the Seattle Sounders were visiting Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Minneapolis to wrangle with my then-home team, the Minnesota Kicks, in a decisive playoff match for the now-defunct North American Soccer League.
With less than a minute remaining in regulation, the Kicks held a 1-0 lead when suddenly, and much to my enduring chagrin, a strident swarm of pass-happy Sounders bum-rushed through our back line and scored.
Unfortunately, my first experience with sudden-death overtime proved heartbreaking at best. Just a few minutes later, we lost the match, and our season, when one of our own players made a seriously ill-conceived pass to our goalkeeper, who inexplicably let the ball go dribbling into the net right behind him.
We didn’t just get beaten by the Sounders, we got beaten by ourselves. And, for quite a long while after that, even just reading or hearing the word “Seattle” made me cringe. But humiliation, much like childhood itself, tends to be fleeting. So I grew out of it. Eventually.
Subsequent maturity regardless, I could not stop the sheer, catastrophic enormity of my inaugural soccer experience from bubbling into the forefront of my mind as our own ad hoc support crew of black-and-white-clad ‘hamsters mingled into the vigorously flag- and scarf-brandishing crowd of 1,800 to cheer on the Hammers in their 2013 home opener against a Burnaby, B.C.-based team called Estrella de Chile.
For the first few minutes, everything went hunky-dory. But then, during Estrella de Chile’s first attack, came a deja vu moment when one of our defenders made a seriously ill-conceived pass back to our goalkeeper that resulted in an “own goal” of stupendous, stadium-deflating proportions.
For a few split seconds, I could have sworn I was back at the Kicks game, circa 1977. But then, all at once, as the rallying crowd of ‘hamsters began singing and chanting and waving their zebra stripes for the Hammers, I knew exactly where I was, and precisely which team to root for.
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