The Cheap Seats: Tales of a soccer junkie
This is the first in what I hope will be an entirely sporadic series of notes from the soccer underground.
So it comes down to this in the epic struggle between my mental stability and my spiritual existentialism, between business and pleasure:
Wednesday night, cold, the 7 train screaming above my head, and I'm trudging down Roosevelt Avenue in Queens with a couple of fellow soccer junkies from MLS HQ, our mouths running a mile a minute, our eyes taking in all that we see. In just 10 blocks, we pass 13 corner bodegas, seven Mexican burrito shops, four Ecuadorian gift stores, two Peruvian grocerias, five cell-phone joints, two shrink-wrapped shoe stores, and what has to be the only Mexican karaoke/strip club for miles.
We're making it to Chibcha, a Colombian restaurant down on 79th Street, where, according to the lone Colombian among us, the Copa Libertadores qualifier between Mexican giants Chivas and Peruvian minnows Cienciano will be shown on big-screen TVs.
Wow! For some reason, it hadn't occurred to me before, but just now, a block away from the restaurant, it does: This is just a qualifier and I'm on the far side of Queens salivating over the prospect of a Colombian steak and a game? Man, I've got it bad. Way bad. Because truth be told I don't care about either of these teams. Too many times David-and-Goliath games like this are simply boring and poorly played scrums.
But there is a reason, right? Rumor has it that at halftime Chivas is going to present to its fans its U.S. little brother, CD Chivas USA. This will be like debutantes at a cotillion. I tell myself this is a fine reason for bushwhacking through the concrete jungle on a chilly Wednesday evening when I'm a week late on another article and my wallet's as empty as a beer bottle.
Of course, my other justification is "experience." Artists and writers love the experiential excuse for misanthropic adventures. It allows for all kinds of laziness and bacchanalia, from museum-hopping to bar-hopping. We'll learn something about ourselves, we tell ourselves, and about our world. This is a leap through the Latino looking glass. Una noche con tus panas!
And, hey, if it stinks, there's always the Mexican karaoke/strip club down the street.
Bad start. Lesson No. 1: Never leave a Colombian in charge of organization. Our Colombian said he phoned and asked if the restaurant was "showing the game," and the restaurant said, "Yes," and everyone hung up, very proud of themselves. But, "the" game did not mean the same thing to the two parties involved. To us, it meant Chivas-Cienciano. To them, it meant Colombia-Argentina Under-20 South American Championships. Qualifiers, no less! Again. I finally got to use all of the Colombian-inflected Spanish swear words Carlos Valderrama taught me and know that they were hitting their mark.
But, as the saying goes, "When in Queens..." (This, of course, only applies when you're hungry, soccer-crazed, and already a good hour's subway ride from home.) We threw down our five bucks, found a table, and settled in for a night of madhousing.
If you can't be quiet then you've gotta be loud, as the Descendents sang back in the day. The crowd at Chibcha was rocking and rolling infectious grooves from the opening whistle. Every table lurched under the weight of serious-looking men, and a few women, who cheered and yelled and groaned and moaned with every spin of the ball. They erupted when sniper Hugo Rodallega drilled a penalty to put Colombia ahead 1-0, hugged and slapped each other's backs as if they themselves had scored. Then they pounded the tabletops when Argentina's Ezequiel Garay struck a nice freekick equalizer. PA announcements urged los Colombianos onward to victory and repeatedly reminded everyone of the post-game salsa dancing.
No one smoked -- because of the NYC law -- but everyone wanted to and nicotine nerves electrified the whole room. The brown-black steaks were savory, the salted puerco like morsels of porcine gold. The arepas were bland flour-filled hockey pucks, best smothered in pinto beans. Everything washed down with Colombian-made Cerveza Aguila flowing like chocolate mainly because the bikini-clad, sombrero-sporting Aguila girl had a sales pitch that outdid anything Sam Walton could devise. She smiled and we all ordered another round.
The game itself was downright miserable. There were maybe four decent chances in total at goal, a plethora of inane fouls, and enough blatant, unnecessary turnovers to conjure up nightmares from my middle school team. At the end, I walked away secure that Sigi Schmid's under-20 U.S. team that includes Eddie Gaven, Freddy Adu and Danny Szetela, can beat both of these sides.
They most likely will have to, because the 1-1 final sent both Colombia and Argentina through to the FIFA World Youth Championships, joined by Brazil who scored a 92nd-minute game-winner against Chile.
Afterward, there was the long lonesome rode back to Brooklyn. Two subway transfers, three trains, and a nervous twitch in anticipation of an all-night writing session. Was I crazy to be out here? Probably. But like I said, I've got it bad. Way bad. And I wouldn't have it any other way. And so I journeyed through the night comforted by visions of goals and assists and a man karaokeing to "La Bamba" while a stripper does her thing in the background.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.