Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Crystal Palace Baltimore – NSM Minnesota Stars (26-06-2010)

It was a short night, having arrived at my hotel in Richmond way after midnight and having to wake up early for the next WC game, so I got on the road at noon a bit tired. While it is only 235 km (150 miles) from Richmond, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland, it takes you through Washington, DC, which means… traffic jams! Moreover, for some reason the game had been moved to another venue (from the University of Maryland Baltimore County to Calvert Hall College High School) and another time (from 19.00 to 17.00). On top of that, there was another WC game to watch, USA-Ghana, starting at 14.30. I planned to see that game at the Paul Angelo Russo Stadium, where Crystal Palace Baltimore was having a viewing party ahead of the game. Because of horrific traffic, I had to listen most of the game on ESPN Radio and arrived 10 minutes before the end at the stadium.

I paid a ticket for $12, which gave me access to the viewing of USA-Ghana and the later USSF2 (Second Division) game. I got me a nice but expensive sausage and peppers sandwich ($7), having starved in the car, and joined the ca. 200 others around the four broadscreen TV’s to see the US being kicked out of the World Cup in extra time.

While several hundred fans were still trying to overcome their disappointment in front of the TV’s, the players of Crystal Palace Baltimore (which are in fact connected to the real Crystal Palace in London) and NSM Minnesota were already introduced to the (officially) 2,348 spectators on the (one and only) main stand.. (my guestimate was ca. 750 people).

It was yet another very hot day, and given that the game was played earlier, the poor players had to endure ca. 34C/93F and terrible humidity. The audience was quite mixed, even though the different minorities positioned themselves at the outsides of the stand, while the main center part was occupied almost exclusively by white middle class families with huge numbers of kids in their own soccer gear (which would be explained at half time). Most seemed only sparsely interested in the game…

The game was played on astro turf, which makes control less of an issue, but at incredible heat, which makes movement problematic. Not surprisingly then that the game was overall played at a low pace, but with fairly accurate passing. I noticed in particular that they players looked much taller and more athletic than the ones in the PDL game, Carolina Dynamo-North Virginia Royals, which I had seen the previous day. In the 17th minute the Minnesota striker went on a long run and scored comfortably: 0-1. The visitors had two more big chances in the first half, but overall not too much happened, no doubt in large part because of the heat.

At half time it became clear why there were so many kids and parents who seemed at best marginally interested in the game: all local youth champions were being honored (girls and boys of all different age brackets), which (player and parents together) accounted for at least one quarter of the spectators. As some kids and parents already started to make their exits, ‘Palace’ equalized with a beautiful free kick from just outside the box: 1-1.

The teams would stay level for just 15 minutes, however, when Minnesota strikes from close range and a Palace player blasts the ball in his own goal from the goal line (he could have easily cleared it): 1-2. After a couple of chances on both sides the visitors strike again, in the 80th minute, punishing sloppy Baltimore defense and scoring a corner kick: 1-3, also the final score.

By the time the referee had blown the final whistle, at least half of the (alleged) 2.000+ spectators had left the stadium. It made me wonder about the true support for this team, which has been around since 2006, is linked to a struggling but professional English team, and plays in the second highest division in the US. It certainly doesn’t have the support base of a Portland Timbers, but even the brand new AC Saint Louis seems better grounded in their larger community.

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