Gillette Stadium is home to the New England Patriots: the NFL’s greatest football franchise. Their stadium matches their quality with comfy seats, massive JumboTrons, perfect lighting and an immaculate artificial field.
But despite the extra jobs, the commercialism of the surrounding Patriot Place shopping complex bleeds onto the gridiron, turning an athletic contest into a tourist destination similar to New York’s Yankee Stadium or L.A.’s Staples Center (or, to some extent, Fenway Park). A fancier stadium means higher ticket prices that many fans just can’t afford.
But I’m not here to talk about football. I’m at Gillette Saturday for soccer. New England Revolution soccer.
The Revolution are in many ways the Patriots’ younger brother. The Kraft Group owns both teams, and the Patriots’ accomplishments have always overshadowed the Revolution’s in Major League Soccer. Not many non-fans know the Revolution played in four championship games between 2002 and 2007, each time coming literally within a goal of bringing home an MLS Cup.
The Revs did win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open, an inter-league soccer tournament. But unlike in Europe, America doesn’t have multiple leagues that all think they’re the best. No matter the sport, one league always reigns supreme, making that league’s championship far more prestigious.
“To win a national championship against the [United Soccer League] Rochester Rhinos, it doesn’t exactly capture the imagination,” says Chris Swain, a Revs season ticket holder and teacher for Massachusetts Youth Soccer.
Swain hails from outside London by way of Framingham. He joins me at CBS Scene several hours before Saturday evening’s Revs game for the UEFA Champions League final. The Champions League pits soccer teams from all over Europe against each other. Since many leagues (England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A) claim they’re the best, this inter-league tournament carries far more weight than, say, the Lamar Hunt Open.
Also, says Swain, “it’s worth more money [to win].”
This year’s final is between Germany’s Bayern Munich and the EPL’s Chelsea, one of just three European soccer teams I’ve seen live (and the only one I’ve seen in Europe). Swain is torn: he wants an English team to win, but he also wants his EPL team, Tottenham Hotspur, to get into next year’s Champions League. For that, Chelsea needs to lose.
I like CBS Scene’s layout: three circular floors, with a spiral stairwell moving through the center. Each floor has a spot where you can surround yourself 360 degrees with TVs showing games. Reminds me of Cerebro from the X-Men movies.
Maybe if I stand in between the screens and think hard enough, I can locate all of the Mannings in the world, then wipe them out.
The fans fill about two full rows of bar seats for the game, with about half rooting for each team. Fun time, until a bunch of horse-racing fans sit next to me and start drunkenly blathering about bullshit (or maybe horseshit) while I’m trying to watch a real sport.
The final itself is 83 minutes of total boredom, followed by five minutes of total awesome. Then, 32 more minutes of boredom. Then a shootout.
Didier “Badass Name” Drogba wins the Champion’s League final for Chelsea with a penalty kick. Bayern Munich takes 43 shots (and blow a penalty kick in extra time) to Chelsea’s nine, and they still lose.
After a couple of hours spent with seemingly all of the Natick Soccer League (actually, more like a 25 percent, which amazes me considering all the kids present), the main even begins. Having just watched two of the best soccer teams in the world, Revolution-Dynamo doesn’t quite hold up.
The teams lack the spatial awareness common to European soccer, and the pitch always looks crowded with players. Passes don’t hit their marks as frequently, and attackers don’t shoot with the same confident precision. It’s just, well, messier.
Even the most ardent MLS fans would probably agree with my comparison.
“It’s just not as good in essentially all areas,” says Jeff Gannon, an architect from Roxbury, of MLS. “I think a lot of it is just the personnel.”
Adds Gannon: “The EPL, especially, along with the Spanish league and many of the Italian teams, just have the best players from the whole world. Here, we get the best players from North and Central America.”
That’s o.k., though – Americans don’t need perfect soccer to get behind a team. They just need a stadium that caters to soccer’s smaller American fanbase. And for Revs fans, Gillette Stadium ain’t it.
“There’s a weird atmosphere over there,” says Chris Camille, a Midnight Rider (one of the Revolution’s official support groups) and soccer coach from Cambridge. “You have the people who want to cheer, and you have the people telling them to sit down and be quiet. And you want to turn around to those people and be like, ‘It’s a sporting event.’”
The loudest Revolution supporters stand (no sitting) in two sections known as “The Fort.” They sing, clap, bang drums and wave flags almost non-stop for the 90-minute match. Here’s how they react to the first Revolution goal, on a penalty kick from Saër Sène:
“He’s a natural goal scorer,” a nearby fan informs me.
The rest of the Gillette crowd cheers along with the Fort, but then they go silent. The over 16,000 in attendance barely make any noise throughout the game, excluding goals.
“We facetiously refer to every other section besides the Fort as ‘the Morgue,’” says Joe Curran, an office worker from Revere wearing Revs gear and a black Patriot-esque tricorne hat.
If anything, the crowd shouts loudest at the referees, berating them for fouls called and uncalled.
“Somebody slide tackle the ref next time!” one particularly irate fan shouts after a Dynamo player doesn’t get red-carded and ejected after tripping Revs midfielder Lee Nguyen from behind.
Only the Midnight Rider and Rebellion super-fans sustain their enthusiasm, and their voices sound muted just 50 feet away where I’m sitting. On the field, the players must think they’re playing in an empty stadium.
Cities like Revere and Somerville have talked for years about building a smaller, soccer-specific stadium. Of the 19 MLS teams, 13 already play in such stadiums. Most Revs fans support the idea whole-heartedly, given that you can’t get to Gillette any other way than driving Route 1.
“It’s an inconvenient stadium that works for a sort-of event like the NFL is, but it simply doesn’t work for soccer” says Curran.
The Revs need a new stadium. Gillette’s size just swallows up the fans.
This Revs game basically just repeats the Champions League final twice. The Revs go up, the Dynamo tie. The Revs go up again late and are two minutes away from victory, then they collapse. But unlike the final, this game ends in regulation:
I walk away from this game thinking the Revs are a work in progress. They don’t have the infrastructure to build their fanbase much bigger, so they can’t generate the income necessary to put a truly dominant lineup on the pitch. Fans by and large attribute the Revolution’s success eight years ago to worse competition, not a stronger team.
“There’s a whole new energy,” says Jody Chase, a mechanical engineer from Westport wearing a propeller cap colored like a soccer ball. “I don’t want to use the overused phrase in sports, which is, ‘it’s a rebuilding year.’”
The game ends in a 2-2 draw. I’d say the day ends that way, too.
Matt Goisman is going to write about a game each and every week from America’s #1 city for sports: Here. We’re calling it 52 Games, because that’s what we’re going to end up with. Last week Matt watched Northeastern and UConn wrap up the college sports season with some baseball. This week, he drove to Foxboro for a New England Revolution game. Next week: Game 6 of Celtics-76ers! Keep up with him here.