Ever since Saturday's night's friendly versus Estudiantes Tecos of the Mexican state of Jalisco, a 2-1 victory for the RailHawks, I've been thinking about how much I enjoyed watching the game with approximately 5,000 Latinos.
Simply put, there's a different energy in the park. It's so obvious as to be scarcely worth stating, but when fans are constantly chanting, cheering and jeering, you realize that the other half of the equation of a quality soccer match has been provided. It was a little humbling to see how nuts the Latino fans went for players that even conscientious American soccer fans have never heard of: for one, the veteran striker Bruno Marioni, who delivered a couple of gorgeous balls; and for another, a 37-year-old, Maradoña-sized attacker named Rodrigo Ruiz. His nickname is "El Pony," which I know because the fans were chanting his name throughout the game until he finally entered in the 54th minute.
At one point, a surely intoxicated fan wandered out onto the pitch, standing inside the penalty box with the Tecos keeper Israel Villasénor. The referee whistled the ball dead and Cary's finest hustled out to the field to arrest him. Here's some fan-shot video of the incident:
In the 82nd minute, Amir Lowery, after feeding Josh Gardner with a pass that the winger converted into the game-winning goal, ran to the visiting sideline to raise his finger to his lips. The enraged Tecos partisans responded by showering him with debris.
Such behavior may simply be that of uncouth drunks (click for testimony to this effect), but I think that, to a point, it's an elevated form of engagement. So many live sporting events in America have been designed to turn the spectators into passive consumers that it's difficult for fans to generate much spontaneous emotion. Go to a big-time basketball or football or baseball game and you'll find that you don't actually have to pay attention: The stadium sound system and Jumbotron will pay attention for you, giving you cues to clap and providing instant replays of the stolen base or three-point shot you just missed.
Soccer is a different animal. Much of the fun comes from the passion supporters have for their clubs. After the game Saturday night, I was impressed by the frenzied adult fans who waited outside the Tecos bus to snag autographs from the likes of Damián Zamogilny, as well as the aforementioned Ruiz and Marioni. However, a few of these grown men and women were sufficiently moved by the efforts of the home side to seek their autographs, too. "Keeper! Keeper," a couple shouted at Eric Reed—who had a magnificent game with six saves, weathering 25 shots—as he entered the tunnel (see above).
The RailHawks' managers don't need to be told that they should find ways to draw more Latino fans to the park, but they've got some obvious obstacles: WakeMed isn't located near many high concentrations of Latinos, for one thing, and this year's RailHawks squad has no Latino players. Marcelo Romero, who didn't play in any regular games before he was released, was Uruguayan, not Mexican or Central American, so he was at best a marginal attraction for area Latinos (although plenty of love was lavished Saturday night on Tecos' Marioni, an Argentine, and Ruiz, a Chilean).
The RailHawks supporters in Section 204 more than do their part to keep the atmosphere lively, but often, the scene at WakeMed is all too reminiscent of former Florida State basketball star Sam Cassell's notorious crack about the Dean Dome: a "wine and cheese crowd."
On the positive side, attendance at the RailHawks' games does seem to be trending slightly upward, although the crowds are still modest. And, most important of all for generating fan enthusiasm, the team is winning.
A few more items: