The Cheap Seats: A reason to party

Our forefathers were intelligent guys and all, what with all that independence declaring and constitution framing, but whoever decided to put the nation's capital in D.C. was a moron.

For our indivisible nation to prosper in the community of man, let us buildeth our capital atop a friggin' swamp. Real smart, Mr. Jefferson. I swear it was 97 degrees with 97 percent humidity before I had my coffee this morning, and by the time I reached stadium for Saturday's All-Star fiesta, I was sweating like Angus Young after an AC/DC show.

Of course, yours truly is an idiot, too, because the first thing I did when I got to RFK Stadium was wander around the parking lot in a hatless, un-sunscreened, heat-induced stupor, helping a friend who is making an independent documentary on MLS fans. Out in Lot 8, I found salvation among my people, my fellow Cheap Seaters, who offered me beers and congratulations on being Alexi's brother (I get that a lot, as if I had something to do with it) and cookies decorated like soccer balls. Any day of the week and twice on Saturday, I'd rather chill out with MLS tailgaters than be cooped inside the "media hospitality room" with the pudgy photographers who scarf chocolate chip cookies like they're free Viagra pills and discuss results from the Peruvian Third Division.

Is there anything as wondrous as a parking lot? It's the American equivalent of a piazza or an agora. I spent half of high school loitering in the Little Caesar's parking lot in Birmingham, Mich., sporting a mullet, air-guitaring to hair metal songs pumping from my buddy Chief's Ford Aerostar, and wondering why girls never talked to me.

On MLS's special days like the All-Star Game and MLS Cup, the parking lots teem with the true fans. That might seem backward. You might think that the true fans are the 27 diehards who show up for Wednesday night games in Kansas City, but you'd be wrong. The true fans are the 27 diehards who fly from Kansas City to D.C. just to sweat off their cojones and be part of All-Star weekend. These are the folks who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune -- such as heatstroke, $6.75 beers, and $70 replica jerseys -- because they care that much.

I have to admit, I've never cared about anything that much. I don't own any replica jerseys. Never will. But MLS fans come from across the country to commune with their kind, to commiserate, to chit-chat, to joke around (a guy in a lawn chair was asked if he wanted another beer, to which he replied, "Nope. I'm Landon, so I'm good."), to celebrate, to discuss everything from Clint Dempsey's injury to Bobby Convey's transfer to Reading. Put simply: All of these people love the game. They are cursed that way.

MLS tailgates are like no other. They're more massive family picnic than Coors Light ad. For instance, out here Saturday kids juggled, hippies hackysacked, tailgaters barbecued soft shell crab. There were disproportionate numbers of techies, mesh shirts, and Etcheverry-type mullets. The Screaming Eagles supporters' club served up fresh fruit and what looked like non-Budweiser libations (gasp!), while across the way, an hombre popped his hatch back and jammed some samba.

There was even this enterprising Mexican man who set up shop selling sodas and sandwiches. When I asked him how much for a sandwich, he noticed my credential and said, "For you? Special price." I insisted on paying because I had seen everyone else pay. "No, señor. They are my family. I have maybe 200 family here. They only pay me back. For you, nada." I acquiesced, devoured a chicken sandwich, and watched him charge his many "family members" three bucks for a beer.

***

In the stadium, the stands looked like 20,000 butterflies flapping their wings. Sierra Mist had handed out promotional hand-fans at the beginning of the game -- as if a piece of cardboard could counter the sweltering inferno of a thousand burning suns. (I love corporate marketing. If they can put a logo on it, they will. How long until corporations start buying the naming rights to children? Boys' names: Budweiser, Honda, Chevron. Girls' names: Apple, Sprite, eBay.) Despite the heat, the fans seemed to be having a good time. They cheered the goals and oohed and aahed at near misses, and there was a general sense of good times.

Now you may have noticed that this All-Star edition of the Cheap Seats has yet to mention the game itself. Well, Mama always said, if you don't have anything nice to say, make sure you really hammer 'em.

Let's be honest. The game was boring. No, "boring" is a little harsh. "Fine" is more like it: Fine, OK, neither here nor there, so-so, ho-hum. There were some solid moments -- Jason Kreis did hit a cracker; Amado Guevara, a.k.a. the Latino Eddie Munster, did have a nice game -- but nothing memorable happened. Certainly nothing extraordinary.

But that's OK. In All-Star Games, the players are damned if they do, damned if they don't. If the score ends up 10-9, the cynical pundits -- like me -- complain about the lack of competitiveness. If they play it full-bore, the pundits wonder why they are risking injury for a meaningless exhibition. And if they go half-speed, the pundits have to refer to the thesaurus for synonyms of "fine."

Ultimately, the All-Star Celebration did exactly what it was supposed to do: It gave everyone a reason to party. MLS may not be able to afford Ronaldo or Figo, but it sure knows how to throw a bash. Here's the algebra of the annual Commissioner's Gala: The MLS players hold hands with their wives, the league people schmooze the corporate sponsors, the corporate sponsors try to introduce their children to the players, the Brits hunker down at the open bar, the South Americans stick to themselves and hope no one asks them a question in English, the media guys try to sell their ideas for new magazines (like the cool-sounding "Striker," due this winter, and the soccer-meets-soft-porn "SoccerTotal," due this fall), the agents leer like hyenas then smile just before someone catches them leering, the U.S. World Cup vets take over a corner and rib each other like only long-time friends can. This crazy little thing called MLS is a community, one like no other, which comes together in parking lots, locker rooms, and hotel bars. Every now and then, it's nice to celebrate that.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. He can be reached at cheapseats@g73.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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