Ann Arbor — It felt like any football Saturday, except there was red and there was white, instead of maize and blue.
By late morning, all around town, the anticipation, electricity and passion — and, yes, traffic — were all evident, leading up to the match between Manchester United and Real Madrid. During the action, the crowd demonstrated the same sort of intense concentration on the play as when the men with the winged helmets are on the field.
There were officially 109,318 people in the stands, the most ever to watch a soccer game in the United States, besting the 101,799 in the Rose Bowl for the gold medal game between Brazil and France at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Had this been a Major League Soccer match, it would have produced nothing of the sort, not the attendance, not the sporting lust, not the sheer fun.
And that makes a significant, final statement about what a major soccer match, played in historic Michigan Stadium, tells us about soccer in the United States.
Until Major League Soccer can begin to produce some of the same desire from American fans, European football and waking up at 7 a.m. on Saturdays to watch the British Premier League and championship tournaments on the continent will have to suffice for “the American game,” too.
And because we do not, in effect, “own it,” we do not feel it is ours. For “ours,” we have to settle for inferior play.
That takes Americans some getting used to, especially in sport.
There is absolutely no doubt that an exhibition against two of the greatest European football clubs in history produced far, far more interest and exhilaration than even an MLS championship.
And that fact is likely to inhibit fan interest in soccer as it is played live in the United States for many years to come, especially as fan interest wanes during the years between World Cups, and with the next two World Cups slated to be played in the middle of the night, USA time.
They do not play in MLS with anything like the speed, skill, ball movement, keen defense and simple élan that European clubs and players like Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Ashley Young all exhibited Saturday.
And make no mistake, despite the “friendly” nature of this match, it was terrific soccer and a well-played game. The boys really seemed to catch the spirit of the moment.
Rooney looks rejuvenated. Young looked other-worldly. Chicharito scored and excited. Bale was stalwart and productive.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo sportingly gave the fans a thrill, putting the lie to his coach’s assertion 24 hours earlier that he would not appear, warming up beginning in the 68th minute and entering the game in the 74th.
Apparently, sore knee and all, Ronaldo just could not help himself in front of more people than he likely has ever played.
And the fans could not get enough.
Perhaps 5,000 watched for well more than an hour after the game, while Chicharito and several of his Manchester United teammates ran through some practice drills in the north end of the cavernous stadium.
MLS offers no comparison
If you do like The Beautiful Game, this was an absolutely intense day in Ann Arbor and a riveting affair inside Michigan Stadium.
Intense and riveting are words rarely associated with MLS, outside of some true fanatics in Seattle, Portland and, perhaps, Kansas City.
If you watch a lot of ice hockey live and note the vast difference in pace and proficiency between the NHL and any other league in North America, you can begin to understand the difference between elite European football and anything else, including MLS.
“Premier League is much better soccer. MLS, it seems like a bona fide version of high school soccer,” said James Trigger of Shelby Township.
“It’s getting better. The more European players that come over, it changes the game.
“But Premier League is like not even close, comparing it to MLS.
“Part of it is speed,” Trigger went on. “It’s technical ability and just I.Q. for the game. Premier League is just so much more advanced.
“Let me put it this way: When Thierry Henry (36-year-old French footballer, played for Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona, and now for the New York Red Bulls) gets too old to dominate in the Premier League, he comes over to dominate in the MLS.
“That’s the way it is. That shows the different levels.”
It was impossible to find anyone who would dissent from similar assertions as one walked around town Saturday.
All of the younger adults who say they believe that when they grow old, soccer will hold far more sway over the attention of American sports fans also said that MLS is not building the fan base in the way that the Premier League and teams that compete in Spain’s La Liga and Italy Serie A do, here in the United States.
Next top-shelf soccer next year
Some defended MLS and said that league organizers had done well — some of the games are enjoyable and at least provide some access to live professional soccer here. But, perhaps encouraged by the headiness of Manchester United and Real Madrid in town and playing, criticism of the comparatively inferior play in MLS was withering.
“MLS is a joke. It’s like watching the minors versus the majors,” Phil Youcum of Ann Arbor said.
“But it’s still fun to watch, because you see all these guys who used to play in the big leagues, and now they’re tearing it up, again, at 40.
“To grow the game, though, they need a fan base to really get it going.”
Would the Premier League ever take a franchise from the United States? Unlikely. It is, after all, the “British” Premier League.
How about La Liga, or Serie A? The impact in the United States would not be the same.
But as more and more players from the United States play in those leagues, and as professional sport leagues in the United States, including the NFL and NBA, consider franchises in Europe, perhaps something can be done.
That said, it will be next summer before the elite European clubs come back to the United States and play. And even if they are only “friendlies,” they will be the next top-shelf soccer to be played in this country.
Until then, for those of us who care passionately, it is early Saturday mornings, beginning later this month, and perhaps some contentment with the European alumni and wannabes of the MLS.
That is what drove 109,318 to Michigan Stadium, on an absolutely scintillating afternoon in Ann Arbor, for the admirers of The Beautiful Game. There was real soccer, here.