My Take on Soccer in New England and A Rant on MLS Attendance

A late addition to The Soccer Tour schedule was a Boston City FC preseason friendly against Assumption College. I know the PR director of the club quite well (shoutout to Michael Preston, an all-around great guy and a patron of the tour!) so the game was on my radar for a few months.

Boston City FC competes in the fourth-division NPSL, and while they’re still new to the game (this is only their second season) they seem to have some pretty ambitious goals.

After meeting with Michael and saying hello to Ronaldo Vieira — the club’s captain and a friend of mine from our days together in Fort Lauderdale — I was introduced to some folks from the Ironside Crew, the club’s supporters group, and my matchday companions.

It was an especially cold night for me as a Floridian, not so much for the handful of supporters in little more than hoodies. The game was close. Boston went up 1-0 in the first half when the “A” team was on the pitch, but that was undone as the “B” side conceded twice late at the end of the match for a 2-1 defeat.

During the second half the club gifted me with a jersey (thank you very much!), possibly because I was in need of the extra layer.

Overall it was a fun experience and it was particularly good to chat with their fans, many of whom also support the New England Revolution — the area’s Major League Soccer team — and get their perspectives on soccer as a whole in New England.

I don’t think it will come as a shock to many for me to say that the Revs haven’t done enough in their 23-year existence to become relevant in the market. And, while the comparison may be unfair, they are certainly not in the same conversation as the Patriots/Bruins/Red Sox/Celtics. (More on that later.)

In fact, when I visited some family in Rhode Island — while obviously happy to see me (I think) — many were surprised I was in town. Why was The Soccer Tour stopping through New England?

“We have a team?”

It was apparent to me a void exists in the Boston area for a soccer team to capture the hearts and minds of the community. Currently, the Revs are just not that team.

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not definitively saying the Revs couldn’t be THAT team (they need to make some adjustments), or that Boston City FC is going to be that team (I don’t know enough about them or their mission/vision/values to say), simply that the market could use someone to step up. Are we on the same page? Good.

The Boston City FC friendly was on a Tuesday, the day before I was going to watch the Revs take on San Jose in what was certain to be a cold, less-than-stellar Wednesday-night (insert excuse here) atmosphere.

Two huge positives. 1) The Midnight Riders supporters group and their leader Fran Harrington (who later became a patron of the tour!) were great in reaching out to me prior to my arrival and making sure I was taken care of. 2) The PR staff from the Revolution were the best of any MLS club I’ve dealt with (on par with Orlando City, but they already knew me) in terms of responsiveness, accessibility, hospitality, etc. They were genuinely interested in my project and ensuring I had the best possible gameday experience.

EDIT: The Revolution did warn me they expected this would literally be the worst match for me to attend. I appreciate their transparency in that and I’m sure I would have more positives to take away from the matchday experience had I attended even the club’s most recent Saturday night match. 

As expected, it was cold and rainy upon my arrival. I got my credential, made for the press box to snag a hot cup of tea before making my way to the Midnight Riders tailgate where I reunited with Fran (who was at the Boston City game the night before) and met some other really great people.

Back to the ginormous Gillette Stadium. I was down on the field to get some video of the opening minutes of the match, before ditching the camera and photographer bib to join the supporters for the remainder of the game.

One of the capos poignantly summed up the atmosphere with a half-hearted attempt to rally the troops at halftime, spouting something to the tune of “look guys, I know it’s cold and rainy and we’re all miserable, but we’re here. So let’s support the boys.”

And we did. The chant was simple, “Revolution!” followed by five claps, but the supporters carried it for the final 20 minutes of the match as the home team desperately looked to break the scoreless deadlock.

At one point, a brief cry of “where is Kraft?” highlighted the lack of interest or involvement by the owner. The stadium is too big. The investment is minimal. And my biggest pet peeve, a severely outdated logo that looks like it was created by a six-year old with a Crayola crayon still developing his motor skills.

Teams like the Revs are falling behind in MLS 3.0 and as the sport evolves in the lower divisions across the country. They need a rebrand. They need a new stadium. And they could use an owner that cares.

I don’t want to go on a rant (I will), but I can’t see how 23 years into its existence an announced crowd of 10,487 for a Major League team is good enough. Sure, you can justify that number with reasonable excuses — Wednesday, cold, rainy, etc. — but are you actually ok with that? I’m not.

Whether they acknowledge it or not (they don’t), MLS has a real problem with attendance and relevance in a lot of markets. For every success story or packed house in Seattle, Orlando or Portland there is a Dallas, Colorado or Philadelphia (and more) struggling for attention in their market and failing to get butts in seats.

The attendance number announced is sold as “tickets sold” or more commonly “tickets distributed.” But I think it’s more insidious than that. Often it seems announced attendance figures are a blatant attempt to distort, spin or deceive people into thinking that clubs are drawing better than they really are. It’s apparent. It’s desperate. It’s dishonest. And it’s not fooling me.

Even the announced 10,000 fans is not good enough when you’re being outdrawn by teams in lower divisions, some of which are desperate for a taste of MLS action.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: the supporters. We were all cold and wet and miserable. But nevertheless, more than 10,000 people showed up to cheer on their team (or something like that — we don’t actually know how many people were in the building.)

So whether it’s the Revs, or Boston City, or a team by another name, there is a demand for soccer in New England. And for their sake, I hope someone steps up to deserve their support.