Boston is one of the country’s biggest sports markets,
and soccer is the world’s biggest sport.
So why are the New England Revolution still an afterthought?
Illustration by Scott Murry | @hotdogtaco
When Diego Fagundez, the 18-year-old faux-hawked phenom and New England Revolution scoring leader, slithers down the right wing, fields volleys, and buries the ball into the back of the net, his supporters at Gillette Stadium get loud. Really loud.
It’s not like when David Ortiz slugs one over the Green Monster, or when Rob Gronkowski barrels into the end zone. Those fans are intense, sure. But Revolution diehards kick a bit harder, singing and chanting from the first drop ball through the final buzzer. When Fagundez or a teammate rips one home, the crowd slips into a nanosecond of silence, then belts out a collective holler. Red, white, and blue scarves flow like ribbons in the air; confetti streams down from the stands; the songs get loud enough to hear for miles.
The phenomenon at hand is much wilder than the Zombie Nation sing-alongs at Bruins games. It’s more like what goes on at stadiums in Rome and Barcelona, or the insanity that will certainly unfold in Brazil next year for the World Cup. The crowd in Foxborough is smaller than those European gaggles, and Fagundez makes a lot less than do his counterparts in Europe, but it’s still soccer—loud, proud, and in some cases, drunker than an alcoholic uncle on Thanksgiving.
As one of Major League Soccer’s earliest and most successful clubs, the Revolution has attempted to expand and generate excitement deeper in the region. Over and over, they’ve failed to resonate beyond Route 128, or even past the stands at Gillette Stadium. The pandemonium just floats into the summer sky and poof—it’s gone. If you weren’t there to see it happen, you wouldn’t know it did.
Boston is a sports-crazy city. Soccer, meanwhile, is the world’s most popular pastime, and by most measures—attendance, television viewership, bars showing games—it’s catching on stateside. But as MLS once again ratchets up its efforts to inspire passion for its brand of football – think the NBA’s “I Love This Game” campaign as a comparison – New England’s squad is largely limited to super fans in the stands. We asked around to find out why.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
MLS launched in 1996, inspired largely by the United States’ hosting of the World Cup two years prior. Among the early advocates for growing the game was Robert Kraft, the exalted owner of the New England Patriots. Playing a major role in helping to establish MLS, in the league’s rookie year Kraft launched his own franchise, the Revolution, and invited them to play in Foxborough.
The Revolution’s early years were ugly, but the team was marketed heavily toward families, and was successful in drawing large crowds. In their first three years of existence they drew more than 19,000 fans per match each season—about enough heads to fill the Garden for a Celtics game. But as the team consistently missed the playoffs around the turn of the millennium, the crowds began shrinking, as did attendance all throughout the league.
In 2002, the Revolution found its first real success on the field. That year—and again in 2005, 2006, and 2007—the team advanced to the MLS Cup Final, a major achievement as the league lured more and more talented players. New England lost all four championship matches, but the run was enough to solidify their place in MLS lore, at least among the youth soccer demographic. The overall draw was still lackluster, but in 2007, Kraft’s franchise began to arch back toward the impressive numbers of their first few seasons.
Those good times crashed down hard. The team’s performance declined over the next five seasons, bottoming out last year when the Revolution finished with the second-worst record in the league. Eric Spence, a spokesman for the fan group that calls itself the Rebellion, says the “team in the past few years has stalled out.” So has attendance, which has since dropped well below the MLS average. But who’s to blame?
The trope has it that soccer and America don’t mix. Baseball is our first national love. If not, then football reigns supreme. There’s also the notion that soccer’s a distinctly European, Latin, and African urge, which anecdotal evidence certainly suggests. Here in the States, some say, we don’t need no soccer. And fuck the metric system too!
Except that isn’t wholly true (the part about soccer, at least). According to Soccernomics, a book that delves into the numbers driving the game globally, the U.S. national team’s final World Cup match in 2010 drew more American viewers than any game of that year’s NBA Finals or MLB World Series. NBC shelled out $250 million last winter to air the world’s most mesmerizing football—the English Premiere League—stateside for the next three years. On top of all that, ESPN and upstart all-sports channels like Fox Sports 1 have all been giving increasing coverage to soccer.
As for results … youth soccer players who MLS targeted early on have grown up, and in many cases are spending enough on tickets to give the league needed traction. Average attendance numbers nationwide top those of many NBA and NHL teams, with some squads even packing stadiums. The Portland Timbers, for one, who entered the league in 2011, sell out almost every game in Oregon; in fact the whole Pacific Northwest is a hotbed, as the Seattle Sounders draw more than 40,000 fans per game—almost three times the size of a typical Revolution crowd. (Earlier this season, Portland vs. Seattle drew more than 67,000.)
This fervor comes in the midst of major league expansion—MLS has brought on nine franchises since 2005 and will add a 20th in 2015. But as the league grows around the Revolution, some fans think the team—once, however briefly, held as a noted and distinguished franchise—has failed to grow with it.
Revolution fans have a long list of complaints. Mostly they resent the fact that the team still plays in a football stadium, as opposed to most other MLS franchises which have moved into state-of-the-art soccer facilities. Seating 20,000 spectators into a colossal 70,000-seater like Gillette Stadium, they say, dampens the community spirit. “It’s a vacuum of silence,” says Fran Harrington, president of another Revolution supporter club, the Midnight Riders.
Along with Spence of the Rebellion club, Harrington says the lack of a dedicated stadium implies that the Revolution plays second fiddle to the Patriots. This is ostensibly true; at Gillette, for example, there’s hardly any recognition of the Revolution. As Spence notes, there’s a large sign on the North end of the stadium welcoming visitors to the “Home of the New England Patriots.” “Maybe let people know [that] another professional sports team plays there,” he says.
Revolution president Brian Bilello says he sympathizes with fans who want soccer to be more of a priority. Speaking of Gillette Stadium, Bilello concedes, “It works for NFL football, but it’s not close enough [to the city] for soccer.” MLS clubs, Bilello says, have resonated with the downtown, 18-to-35-year-old demographic—a group that is increasingly abandoning their cars. “It was never a play of, ‘We need a soccer-only stadium’,” he says. “It’s the power of a better environment. Location is also critical.”
Building a sports stadium in Boston’s rapidly developing core presents its own set of challenges. Such massive urban planning thrives on partnerships with communities. The Revolution has made inroads in a few cities, mostly Revere and Somerville; the Boston Globe has reported that the former’s mayor, Dan Rizzo, would push for a stadium to be built in conjunction with a Suffolk Downs casino. But there and in other towns that might invite a soccer stadium, there’s always the hurdle of convincing taxpayers to graciously accept related costs in hope of an eventual return on their investment. That’s a difficult task for the region’s fifth favorite franchise.
“We’re maintaining a holding pattern,” says Harrington, who doesn’t think the Revolution will be able to grow out in the suburbs. “[Location] is really the main factor holding us back.”
While a stadium would be dandy, there’s also a much simpler way to attract new fans—the Revolution could win more games. To that end, the club has made some recent progress. After bottoming out with the second-worst record in MLS last year, the Revolution now stands in playoff contention, and boasts a stable of quality young players. Highlighting that bunch is Fagundez, a local kid who, at 18, is already in his third season. Raised in Leominster, Fagundez is the first product of the team’s academy system, which develops regional talent in hopes of some day elevating them to pro competition. He’s led the Revolution in scoring through most of this season, and, more importantly for growing the team’s base, he’s akin to Justin Bieber among soccer groupies.
On the field, Fagundez rocks with defender Andrew Farrell, the top overall draft pick in all of MLS last season, plus midfielders Kelyn Rowe and Scott Caldwell, the latter also a fruit of the academy system. Then there’s Bobby Shuttleworth, a fifth-year goalkeeper who unseated the team’s long-time starter this season, and flashy 20-year-old Columbian striker Juan Agudelo. The rebooted team has also turned itself around on account of a roster full of veterans with international pedigrees—Lee Nguyen, Saer Sene, and Jose Goncalves, among others—as well as their new coach Jay Heaps.
Of course, it’s impossible to assess the Revolution’s place in our local sports ecosystem without acknowledging the other Boston teams, their sustained success, and their histories. Most clubs that boast the most fervent supporters—Seattle and Portland, for instance—have but one or two franchises to compete with. “The popularity of the team,” says Bilello, “isn’t at the level of the other [Boston] teams. But as the soccer community continues to grow, so will the interest level.”
It’s not all grim news. The Revolution, Bilello adds, have actually seen attendance grow over the past three seasons, and the team projects to see a 10 percent increase this year. Even if those figures pale in comparison to their relative heyday, the growth is more organic than in past booms, and could be more healthy long-term. With next year’s World Cup being played in Brazil—meaning its games will show in primetime in America—Bilello thinks that coming buzz could help kickstart the Revolution all over again. Moving toward that goal, the team has gotten an assist from the Boston portal on ESPN.com, which covers the team diligently. That, in addition to current national sportscaster and Gen-Xer Damon Amendolara––who occasionally sprinkled bits of Revolution reporting into his former program on the Sports Hub before taking a national position with CBS Radio––the rise of younger reporters and media figures, Bilello thinks, will coincide with increased coverage of the sport.
Overall, the fans who still show up to scream at the top of their lungs seem to recognize that the club remains in a rebuilding phase. They’re optimistic, though some are nevertheless dismayed by the slow movement of soccer culture in New England. While a handful of fans question whether Kraft should own the team, others hope the formula that’s led the Patriots to become one of the NFL’s leading franchises will also apply to the Revolution. Until then, says Spence, “They are number five in a five-horse town.”