The little boy in front of me is wearing his soccer team’s jersey. It is a generic red color, with generic orange sleeves, and there’s some kind of badge sewn onto it. No name, no number: it could have been any kid’s jersey, depending on what order they lined up in the day they handed them out. I’m having a hard time making out the badge because he is dancing, energetically, to the music of funk sextet New Sound Underground at the Surly Pre-Match Party. He’s about ten and not thinking about soccer at all at the moment, although when he got dressed that morning he probably thought, “I should wear my jersey.”
It was a thought clearly shared by a lot of people here. There’s a young man in Chelsea’s royal blue standing next to an older guy in Tottenham’s white-and-navy home kit. Some wear particular players’ jerseys: I see Ronaldinho and Fabregas, and one that either says “Panchito” — Francisco Mendoza, currently of Delfines F.C. — or “Pachito” — Joffre Pachito of Sportivo Luqueño. The guy wearing it moves too quickly between a sea of bodies for me to get a good look.
The best represented team is, naturally, Minnesota United FC, but even there, the shirts and jerseys are a riot of eras. There are several creamsicle-orange Alan Willey shirseys — throwbacks to a throwback now, harking back to the night in 2016 the team honored the Kicks legend and MNUFC color commentator with an MNUFC shirt in Kicks colors. A guy in an NASL Ibson jersey briefly crosses paths with a guy in an MLS Ibson jersey, but they don’t seem to notice. And the jerseys are floating in a sea of women and men and children in Minnesota United shirts and scarves.
Just about all of these people picked these jerseys and shirts and scarves for a reason, both when they bought them and when they pulled them out today for Minnesota United’s match against Orlando City. They might have bought them at a store or a match, either at the National Sports Center in Blaine or at TCF Bank Stadium. They might have had to order them, might have had to get them customized with their favorite player’s name. They could have bought them off eBay or inherited them or gotten them as gifts. Maybe in that last case, they didn’t get to make that first choice, much like the boy in his team’s jersey. It was handed to them, and they embraced it. The jerseys are plumage in the purest sense of the word: a show of feathers, a signal.
On the walk from Surly to the stadium, I see couples, families, packs of friends, and mixtures of all of the above. As I catch up and pass them, I hear some of them say it’s their first match, that they’re season ticket holders, that their friend gave them the tickets when their friend couldn’t make it. It’s a bright blue Saturday, the sky streaked with cotton clouds, the temperature hovering right at the edge of genuinely warm. In the shade, you zip up your hoodie; in the sun, you shed it. Fans are flocking to the stadium from all different directions, and they converge from left and right as we all funnel toward the entrances.
Once inside, the jumble of people with their various jerseys coalesce into a tableau of fandom much as you’d find in any stadium at any sporting event. There’s the din of the concourse filtering down to the lower bowl’s seats, punctuated by the shouts of vendors hawking peanuts, popcorn, the usual. The players warm up and the crowd begins to settle into a perfectly restless calm. It’s collective, a collage of individual actions and moods that finds its level as kick off approaches and the players themselves march on to the pitch in single file, flanked by kids in MNUFC jerseys.
Many of the players bend or quickly kneel as they reach the endline, just touching the playing surface or picking up a bit of turf — a sign of respect or maybe a silent request for permission to enter. The team’s captain, Francisco Calvo, kneels in the backfield, arms spread wide and eyes closed, the late afternoon sun lighting him up. He brings his right hand to his chest, taps it twice, then blows a kiss to the heavens. He stands, and as he begins to walk toward his position on the field, he kisses the wedding ring on his left hand. Now he is ready.
The supporters groups are beyond ready, their chants building from the moment the players entered the tunnel, intimidating and overwhelming in those concrete confines. Theirs is a litany they will keep up for the entire match, rising and falling with the action on the pitch as they at times seem to follow it and at others seem to guide it. This is where the atmosphere of a soccer match begins to pull away from that of other sporting events. The game’s uninterrupted nature — the way 45 fluid minutes unfurl before you with little to no intervention beyond the punctuation of goal kicks, free kicks and corner kicks — gives a match a strikingly organic feel. There’s no voice of authority exhorting you to clap your hands, no mid-inning breaks, no kiss cams. Everything is wrapped around the action on the pitch, every crest or trough in energy and enthusiasm building from the crowd out. The organic nature of it is what makes the building ring to its foundations when everyone gets behind a chant, a veritable ocean of people chanting, “M … N … U-F-C.” As it builds, it folds back on itself into something almost physical, something powerful.
The world itself gets in, with Orlando City testing goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth early and from distance, banking on the setting sun to make it tough for him to read the ball. But those efforts sail high and into the crowd, tossed back dutifully to kids corralling the balls along the endlines. In person, the physical elements come to the fore: the players run faster and hit the ball harder than you think. It feels personal. When Calvo deflects a cross away from the face of goal, he receives Shuttleworth’s low five on his outstretched hand without ever looking away from where the ball went out of bounds. He’s already planning for the next moment and shouting a captain’s instructions to the rest of the team.
When an Orlando defender deflects the ball over the endline, someone in the crowd shrugs off her scarf and holds the ends together in her hands. Another picks his up off the back of his chair. Another hands hers to her son, whom she lifts into the air as they all stand and begin swinging the scarves above their heads. The crowd blossoms into a kinetic explosion of spinning scarves as the players array themselves into offensive and defensive positions. The noise gets thick. It crests along with the anticipation as the ball sails in, then breaks as the ball’s headed clear. It rises and falls, rises and falls.
In the 56th minute, MNUFC finds an opening. Ibson fires a low pass to Johan Venegas across the halfway line and Venegas flicks it up and into the air behind him with the lightest of touches. The ball catapults over the Orlando defense and Christian Ramirez runs onto it, nimbly nudging it past goalkeeper Joe Bendik and into open space. Just last week, LA Galaxy defender Ashley Cole slid through and shut the door on Ramirez as he stared down an invitingly open goal. He remembers, and won’t be denied again. As defender José Aja closes in from behind, Ramirez holds the ball for a breath and cuts it back as Aja dives and slides harmlessly out of bounds. He fires the ball calmly into the welcoming net and the crescendo that began with Venegas’ pass explodes.
When PA announcer Tony DeLorenzo’s voice booms over the stadium, he calls out “CHRISTIAAAANNNNN,” then leaves a space, the crowd shouting out as one, “RAMIREZ!” He does it again. Somewhere in the stadium, there’s a kid at her first match with her parents. The first time, she looks around at the crowd, maybe a little stunned by the volume. The second time she says, a little unsure, “Ramirez.” The third time, she yells: “RAMIREEEEEEEEZZZ.”
Ramirez’s goal ends up being the difference and MNUFC wins 1-0. As the final whistle blows, the cheers shower down on the pitch and the speakers erupt with Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” a song choice that might leave you scratching your head unless you know the song’s surprisingly deep history with the club. As the recorded version reverberates into the Minneapolis night, the players from both teams exchange handshakes and tired hugs, reveling in a bit of that good exhaustion. Minnesota’s players gradually coalesce into a loose line, hands linked, and they move as one toward the crowd behind the goal on the east end of the field. The speakers cut out at the chorus and everyone — players and crowd alike — lift the song up with their gathered voices. “I said maybe … you’re gonna be the one that saves me …”
This. All of this. All of this stuff is what a fan is in the middle of all the time. Beginnings and middles and endings all crashing into one another, and all of us picking and choosing what we see, what we find, what we keep. A jersey’s just a thing. A scarf is just a thing. A ticket, a match, a perfect blue afternoon that seeps into a perfect summer evening, a high five, a corner kick, a ritual, a win, a song: they’re all, in one way or another, things. Each of us holds this or that close, each of us differently. When you stack all these traditions and moments together, you begin to see it’s not what we hold, but that we hold it that matters.