US service members who are also big MLS fans: Here's how you can help them

LA Galaxy defender Ashley Cole exchanges jerseys with Eric Landin

As he stood on the field at the StubHub Center following the LA Galaxy’s 2-2 draw with the Houston Dynamo on June 17, Eric Landin couldn’t find the words.

He’s a Sergeant First Class in the United States Army, a 13-year veteran who served one combat deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Landin stood opposite Ashley Cole trying to find the right way to break the ice.

He thought about letting the LA Galaxy fullback and Chelsea legend know that he, in fact, supports Manchester United. Instead, star-struck, Landin could only muster a few words.

“Good game, mate,” Landin told Cole.

US service members who are also big MLS fans: Here's how you can help them -

Eric Landin with LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole.

Landin was one of four service members that night to participate in a jersey swap with LA Galaxy players. It is part of an initiative called "Operation: Back of the Net" in conjunction with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the United Service Organizations and Major League Soccer to honor and raise money for men and women who serve the United States and are transitioning back to civilian life.

For every goal scored by a US-based MLS club between July 1 and July 6, SNHU will donate $3,000 to the USO in support of transitioning service members. SNHU will also donate $1 for every retweet using the hashtag #SNHUgoals during the same time period.

For Landin, who has sacrificed a great deal for his service, including missing his children’s birthdays due to his deployment, the MLS jersey swap was a chance to create a once-in-a-lifetime memory.

“Being provided the opportunity to share a special moment in the sport you love with your loved ones kind of makes up for that kind of stuff,” Landin said. “You get to create new special moments with your family.”

An unusual soccer journey

Landin grew up in El Paso, Texas, the oldest of four boys raised by a single mother. He had a chance to attend a local college straight out of high school, but he had greater aspirations.

“I wanted to get out of El Paso, to see the world and experience life,” Landin said. “If I stayed back at home going to college, I’d just be working at the same grocery store, still stocking shelves.”

Landin played some pickup soccer in El Paso growing up, but he wasn’t a real soccer fan. That changed on his first deployment when he found himself in Korea a year after the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the USA famously advanced to the quarterfinals.

There was still a buzz in Korea from the event and Landin found himself playing in pickup games every Sunday against some locals.

“We just put the ball down, played, took a break and shared some cultural stuff,” Landin said. “We were having fun sharing our love of the game.”

He did the same at Fort Huachuca in Arizona and again in Germany and Iraq, where he was gifted an Iraqi national team jersey.

“There was all kind of dust going up everywhere, but we were enjoying it,” Landin said.

Landin also brought a soccer ball as part of a humanitarian mission in Liberia, replacing the tattered sphere that barely resembled a ball for some local kids.

It was in Korea that Landin met his wife, Cynthia, who was also in the Army. She played, too, though a torn meniscus and ACL in Afghanistan forced her to hang up her boots.

As his soccer fandom grew, so did his MLS affinity. His favorite MLS players are fellow Texas native Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan and because David Beckham played in Los Angeles, Landin leaned toward supporting the LA Galaxy.

That became official when he was offered the chance to see his first game a few months after moving to the Los Angeles area last August. 

“As many times as I’ve been overseas, I had never been to a game before,” said Landin, who is currently serving as an Army recruiter in Culver City, Calif. “One day my company commander said we have LA Galaxy tickets that the USO provided, who would like to go?”

Landin’s eyes bulged and his arm shot up.

“Right here!” he said.

US service members who are also big MLS fans: Here's how you can help them -

Eric Landin exchanges jerseys with LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole at StubHub Center.

Landin was at StubHub Center to see the LA Galaxy defeat Real Salt Lake 3-1 in the Knockout Round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs in October.

“My family loved it,” Landin said. “We didn’t know what to think, how my kids would take it or if they’d be bored. But we had a blast.”

Landin said he will remain an LA Galaxy fan, even with LAFC coming to town next year.

“It depends,” Landin said. “Maybe if [LAFC] sign Wayne Rooney things will change.”

NYCFC fan goes incognito 

Like Landin, Ian McPhillips, a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard, played soccer growing up, but it was the sea that was his calling.

A lifeguard and a commercial fisherman growing up in Alaska, joining the Coast Guard in 2002 was part of his natural progression.

“I definitely like being on the coast. I’m a surfer, a water person. It was a natural fit,” McPhillips said. “I enjoy helping people and that’s a really big part of the Coast Guard’s mission. That’s probably my favorite part of it.”

US service members who are also big MLS fans: Here's how you can help them -

New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis exchanges jerseys with Ian McPhillips.

What McPhillips calls his “re-introduction” to soccer came after meeting his wife, Natalie, who also served in the Coast Guard.

She and her brother Kyle played in high school and their father, Jon Briggs, is a volunteer assistant coach at Linfield College in Oregon.

McPhillips said the first time he watched an MLS team in person was the New England Revolution facing Olimpia of Honduras in New Orleans in a 2007 preseason match. Hailing from Portland, the couple were Portland Thorns season ticket holders, in part because “no one can get season tickets to the Timbers. It’s impossible,” he said.

McPhillips said he’s attended Seattle Sounders and Timbers games and he became a New York City FC season ticket holders for the club’s first two years when they moved to New York. This year they purchased a five-game plan because he is transferring next week to Juneau, Alaska to work as a Fishing Vessel Safety Examiner.

McPhillips, who also bought tickets to watch the Red Bulls, is planning on attending a Columbus Crew SC match on Saturday, July 1 as they continue their cross-country trip.

“The fans are probably, of all the professional sports I’ve been to, my favorite fans,” McPhillips said. “Everyone is pretty energetic about the game. It’s nice to see the United States getting excited about soccer.”

On Saturday, McPhillips found himself on the field at Red Bull Arena swapping a jersey with Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis following the eighth installment of the New York Derby.

McPhillips declined to inform Davis that he’s an NYCFC season ticket holder or that Tommy McNamara is his favorite player.

“I did not,” he said with a laugh. “He was a really nice guy, very appreciative of service and just very friendly and outgoing. It was really cool. I was very honored to do that.”

US service members who are also big MLS fans: Here's how you can help them -