Last Saturday's Columbus Crew SC match against Toronto FC was more than a home opener. It was also the start of a new era for the Black and Gold's fortress, the newly re-dubbed MAPFRE Stadium. A new name, fresh signage, and a brand new smorgasbord of food options added to the natural excitement of seeing the club in living color for the first time this year.
For many, it was like returning home to find the house redone while we were away (and looking amazing, might I add). Others, however, were experiencing MAPFRE Stadium and Crew SC for the very first time. Being interested in the opinions of "casual fans", I decided I needed to find one of THOSE people to talk to. Luckily this thought occurred to me well before the match in question, so I put it in to the Twitter-verse that I was looking to find someone attending their first ever match at the home opener, and I was rewarded with a suggestion, who will be known as W on the request of anonymity.
W first told me he was not a soccer fan, as it had never been too interesting.
"Apart from being in the same room as someone who is watching a game, I don't know if I have ever sat down and watched a whole one through," he told me.
The opening match would truly be his first real exposure to the beautiful game. No Euro vs. American bias to overcome.
I then wanted to know his familiarity with Crew SC. Did he know anything about the club, its history or recent developments?
"I distinctly remember reading about winning the championship in 08," he replied with excitement. "But that's about all I would know."
This intrigued me. Somehow W had missed the news of Anthony Precourt's purchase of the team or the major rebrand. He didn't know much about the team, but that didn't matter to me.
I wanted to know why he decided to come to a Crew SC match now and the answer surprised me. His friend Ben offered to take him and, knowing how big of a deal it was to him, he said "why not?"
Then he added something, unprompted, that really got me thinking.
"Also, I've heard about the fans at these games," he said. "I think the idea of a specific spot for the loud ones is smart and I'd love to watch them go."
Having never really seen a match, W only knew of the Nordecke from what he'd been told, presumably by Ben. Personally, I think this is awesome. The idea that the Nordecke is not only a place for our fans to congregate and influence the match, but also a draw for new fans, has long been something I've suspected. However, I always anticipated it appealing more to the people who were already soccer fans, who know the score, and who were looking for a place to "get weird", as Frankie Hejduk would say. To hear a non-soccer fan be excited to see the Supporter's Section caught me off guard, but in a good way.
I was unable to meet W at the game so I e-mailed him the next day to see what he thought.
"I had a very good time!" was his response. He told me his group sat a section away from the Nordecke, and the energy was contagious. He also commented that he "thought the banner was very nice". Again, this was unprompted, thus confirming my theory that we are very lucky to have the #TIFOSWEAT crew on our side.
What about the match itself? He continued: "Overall the game was far more entertaining than I expected. It was very fast paced, which I enjoyed."
I don't think anyone would debate that the match was entertaining, but to hear a total newcomer praise the speed of the match was a bit surprising to me. Perhaps this is one of the places where not being familiar with international soccer helped the cause, so to speak, as W was able to judge the game on its own merits, not comparing it to the English Premier League or Champions League soccer.
For what is still a fairly sizable majority of Americans, MLS matches are their first real exposure to competitive soccer. The debate about how MLS ranks compared to various international leagues doesn't mean anything to a first time attender. I, personally, am fairly cynical, and to hear someone describing the game so positively was a great reminder that regardless of the relative "quality" of the league, the players, the play on the field, the game still had that appeal that first drew me in as a fan.
I think the big takeaway from my talks with W was that the match itself, while entertaining, wasn't really the big draw, so to speak. This seems counterintuitive to those of us who are fanatical about the club, but to a first time attender? It's perfectly understandable that the experience would be what stood out, especially on a night like Saturday. A home opener, a revved up crowd, a rival in town, all these things add up to a real sense of occasion. I think all of us long-time fans could sense a real buzz in the stadium that night, a palpable excitement that had been lacking somewhat in recent years. This was picked up on by W, and I'm sure by other first time attendees as well.
It's something to keep in mind, at the Stadium, next time you see someone looking a little clueless or saying something utterly ridiculous. Maybe the person asking why they're still playing after the 45-minute mark has never actually seen a soccer match before. Not everyone "does their homework" before coming out. And that's okay because to us, it's about the club, the match, three points on the line, but to some, a trip to MAPFRE Stadium is just a fun way to spend a Saturday night.
My last question to W was the all-important one, would he be coming back? His response: "After Saturday I would actually be interested in more games. I would not have expected that, but soccer is more fun than I thought!"
So there it is. Between the on-field product exceeding expectations and the atmosphere being impressive, someone with even less than a passing interest in soccer was convinced to give it a real shot. He's not about to sign up for season tickets, but it's the first step down the path that is familiar to many of us, soccer fandom. I'm sure he wasn't the only first time attendee there for the opener. Hopefully he's not the only one intending to come back.
As always thoughts, comments, questions, stories, bribes, and hate mail can all be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow me on twitter @krislandis for all the obscure references you can handle. Thanks for reading, and stay Massive.