LONDON – One fan went to a LA Galaxy game on his honeymoon. Another went on vacation to New York City specifically to see Frank Lampard in action. Some even stay up until 6 am on weekends to get their Major League Soccer fix.
On Saturday, they were all able to come together. MLS held a viewing party at The Pilgrim Pub in Kennington, London for the New York Derby matchup, with Lampard making a special appearance as scores watched his former NYCFC teammates notch a 2-0 road win at the Red Bulls.
While Lampard's presence and an early evening kick-off certainly helped attract a healthy crowd, the supporters present were able to share with each other their experiences of how they got into the league – and what has kept them hooked.
An English connection was, for most, key in sparking their interest, with the arrivals in MLS of the likes of Lampard, David Beckham and Thierry Henry playing a particularly notable role.
And the TV deal with Sky Sports, it seems, has played a major part in maintaining their interest in a league that continues to become more and more popular internationally every year.
The Hartley family are a case in point. Dad Gary and his two sons David and Christopher (who sported a Jack Harrison jersey) traveled nearly 70 miles from Cambridge to south London for the event at The Pilgrim.
They're all Manchester City supporters and decided to support sister club NYCFC out of solidarity.
"My little brother and I both saw a tweet from Man City on social media and had to come along," said David, 21. "Living in Cambridge and being NYCFC supporters, we had to make the journey down, especially with Frank Lampard being in attendance as well.
"My brother, dad and I are all season ticket holders at Man City and when we heard that the City Football Group had started an MLS franchise, it was a natural progression for us to support NYCFC. A lot of people question how I can support a second team but they’re part of the City family so it’s only right. Being huge football fans, we want to watch as much as we can and with the birth of NYCFC three seasons ago, supporting them gave us the perfect opportunity to continue to watch as much football as possible.”
The Hartleys haven’t yet made a trip to see an MLS game live in person, but there were plenty present at the Pilgrim who had.
"I traveled all the way to New York last year in order to watch Lampard play live in MLS and I was able to watch two matches during my trip across the pond, including the New York Derby at Yankee Stadium," said Londoner AAA Syed.
"I am a huge fan of Lampard - I'm a Chelsea fan and, of course, he is one of the greatest legends of the club. I had an amazing time today and hope that the MLS will organize more screenings and events like this in London."
Russell Watkins and Chris Egan are both huge soccer fans with a love of America. So following MLS was a natural fit for the friends.
"I've followed MLS since David Beckham went over in 2007," said Egan, 29. "To have this pub filled is unbelievable, to see the support of MLS in England grow from then since now is amazing.
"Me and Russ are big America fans and we're big football fans – and the passion is so great, we relate to all of it. I support the league but LA Galaxy are my No. 1 club. I went to LA on my honeymoon and saw the Galaxy play then. Russ and I also went to Ireland to see Robbie Keane's testimonial. We were lucky to get a snippet of MLS there."
Watkins, who has supported the Red Bulls since Henry joined the club in 2010, is happy with the MLS deal with Sky Sports but wishes he had the chance to see even more televised games.
"A streaming service to watch more games would help grow MLS here," he said. "There's only a certain number of games you can watch each week on TV and MLS has a streaming package [MLS LIVE] but it's only for [North] America."
Surveying the bar and seeing all the fans in attendance at The Pilgrim, he added: "I didn't realize that MLS was as popular as it was over here."
College friends Louis East and Jamie Ives, both 23, set up a MLS website specifically for UK fans – MLSGB.com – in 2014. For them, Saturday’s event helped justify all the hard work they have put in.
"My love of MLS started in 2007 when David Beckham moved over but I wasn't following it religiously. That changed, though, when Jermain Defoe moved to Toronto FC in 2014. And then three months after that we started the website," said East. "We've fallen in love with the league and it's incredible to watch it grow from strength to strength.
"I thought today's event was hugely successful – bigger and better than anticipated. I think a lot more fans turned up than I think most people expected and that is testament to the growing appetite of the league over here in Britain.
“More of these events would undoubtedly help the league grow and eventually getting matches played over here would be incredible. But as it is early stages in terms of MLS reaching out to British fans, more events like this – different teams, perhaps different locations to reach out to everyone in Britain – will only encourage people over here get into the league."
East said it was the first time he’d seen so many MLS fans gathered together to watch a game in the UK. He said the early start – the match kicked at 6:30 pm London time – certainly played a factor in that, not that late nights prevent him from keeping up on the league.
"It's nicer when games are during more normal hours so to speak but late kick-offs is not something that will put me off watching any game,” he said. “If there is a big game kicking off at 3 am or 4 am then I'll watch it.
"The 2015 opener was LA v. Houston that was a 4 am kick-off; that was the latest I've stayed up. It was a 24-hour day by the end of that one."
And with that, East went home to settle down for the Orlando City-Chicago Fire contest. Kick time in London for the matchup at Toyota Park? 1:30 am.