All-Star: AS Roma bring roller-coaster ride stateside to Sporting Park as first-ever Serie A opponent
Welcome, Roma. And welcome back, Italy.
The words above, those are my own personal thoughts on Thursday’s announcement that AS Roma will be coming to Sporting Park on July 31 to play in the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game in Kansas City.
First, welcome Roma. You really only entered my life a little less than a year ago, when you signed my nephew Michael. What you've given me in the past nine months has changed my life forever, in part because you've certainly taken years off it.
I'm told that Roma have done that to many fans, for they are soccer's greatest roller coaster ride. For the first half of this last season, under manager Zdenek Zeman, they were the team that that some days looked like the best team in Europe and other days looked like something much less. They scored and conceded equal numbers of jaw-dropping goals, gave away two-goal leads and overcame two-goal deficits like it was their job.
Because I am new to this, I told a long-standing Roma fan, "I guess this is life under Zeman," who always plays a 4-3-3 and believes it's always his team's duty to attack.
My friend said to me, "No, this is life as a Roma fan."
When Zeman was fired just after the Christmas break, after six games without a win, I learned that my friend was right. The only difference when Zeman was replaced by assistant coach Aurelio Andreazzoli was that the games were not so much a rollercoaster.
But the season was.
In the second half of the season, I saw Roma beat powerful teams like Juventus and Napoli, but lose to bottom feeders like Palermo. I saw Andreazzoli's teams grind out results away against Fiorentina only to come home and give up points to Chievo.
At the end of it all, Roma came in sixth, just one spot short of a Europa League spot, but they were left with one final chance to play their way into Europe, if they could beat crosstown archrivals Lazio in the final of Coppa Italia at the Stadio Olimpico.
They lost 1-0.
As I watched the final seconds of that game, the tears rolling down the cheeks of Francesco Totti (right) and Danielle DeRossi taught me a lot. Totti and De Rossi have only played for Roma. Have only rooted for Roma. Have only known Roma.
It's that kind of club, I've learned. They are one of those teams that understands the passion of their fans and so badly wants to please them with epic wins and trophies.
They are a huge club with a huge, global support network. I saw that firsthand last summer when they played Liverpoool at Fenway Park and, later, when I took my sons to Red Bull Arena to see Roma play El Salvador. As soon as we parked in Newark and began to walk across the bridge to Harrison, we saw a red sea of Totti and DeRossi shirts.
But Roma have not won big. Not in recent years, anyway. They’ve won Serie A's Scudetto only three teams and just once (in 2001) in the past 30 years. They won back-to-back Coppa Italia titles in 2007 and 2008, but have won nothing since. Still, their fans flock to their open training sessions, sing as loud as ever and pray for more success.
I don't speak to my nephew often about soccer, but this past Christmas, when I told him how the first half of their season was such a thrill-ride, he said, "It's that kind of club."
MLS ALL-STAR GAME HISTORY: AS Roma becomes first-ever Italian Serie A opponent
Michael went on to talk about the fans and how they react to every victory as if it's going to be the victory that propels them to greatness, and how their collective spirits drop after each defeat, as if it's going to be a defeat that pushes the team down into the depths.
But he told me he loved every minute of it.
So, this is what MLS fans will get to see in Kansas City, a team that will come to attack and score goals. A team that will try to put on a show. Not because they want to entertain, so much, but because that's how Roma play. With their emotions out in the open.
And it will be good for MLS fans to get a glimpse of Italian soccer, which is why I say, “Welcome Back, Italy.” Because for a while – in the early days of MLS – the Italian Serie A was the league heralded as the "best in the world."
Players like Roberto Donadoni of the MetroStars and Giuseppe Galderisi and, later Walter Zenga of the Revolution, were some of the league's best early signings.
When Fiorentina came to Giants Stadium in 1996, Gabriel Batistuta and Company were like rock stars. And when Sampdoria came a year later with Roberto Mancini, it was the same thing. Huge buzz.
But when MLS started to stick with its current format of matching the All-Stars against an international opponent in 2005, the league always chose English clubs, save the game against Celtic in 2007. Serie A teams have made their way over to play friendlies against MLS clubs – AC Milan has played Chicago twice, and D.C. and New York once; Inter-Milan played FC Dallas – but seeing an Italian team in the All-Star game makes me happy.
Of course, this is coming from someone who's watched Serie A games on RAI-TV since the early '90s, before MLS, when it was really the only soccer on free television in New York and New Jersey. Back then, it was the AC Milan teams of Roberto Donadoni and George Weah and the Juventus teams of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli. Incredible teams.
WATCH: A short introduction to Roma
I still watch games on RAI with its grainy feed even though I don't speak Italian. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but because beIN Sport hasn't made its way to my cable provider.
But in the last 15 years, I believe Serie A has become greatly misunderstood by American fans because it's not as easily digestible – or neatly packaged – as the English Premier League. Italian stadiums, with only a few exceptions, are not as telegenic as English stadiums. Most are vast and old and at times have ragged field conditions.
Of course, there are also the match-fixing scandals. So image problems are understandable.
But, in my opinion, the soccer is still incredible. So, maybe just maybe, when Roma's famous Giallorossi take to the field at Sporting Park, we'll see some conversions.
From where I sit, that would be welcomed.