By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com Staff Reporter Follow @mary_paoletti
I was at Gillette Stadium Wednesday.
Not for football, but ftbol. Manchester United vs. New England Revolution.
It was an unlikely draw for me. I know next to nothing about soccer. I might be the only kid in my hometown who didn't play pee wee. I only watched the rivalry games during high school. And I saw UConn live just once, when the Big East championship was on the line.
I remember that 2,511 fans was considered "raucous."
Over 51,000 gathered for the 2011 World Football Challenge. The home of the Patriots initially appeared unchanged. A familiar wave of red, white and blue apparel rolled through the concourse and broke at each concession stand. But a few details were off. Fans draped allegiances around their necks that July night with colorful scarves. The names on jerseys were disorienting: Giggs, Macheda, Ferdinand, Berbatov, Rooney . . . wait.
Rooney. He's the crazy redhead on England's World Cup team. I know that name!
And that was it.
"I feel like a fraud," I mumbled.
Traffic foiled my plans to go home and change after work. My floral dress labeled me lost; my bright yellow cardigan screamed it. I went to the game -- my first Revolution experience -- to see Manchester United. Though disconnected from that region of the sports world, I've realized through incidental contact that Man U deserves respect. At some point, a SportsCenter highlight or my Sports Illustrated subscription told me this is a good team, a really good team.
The Reds won their 19th Premier League title in May to become the most successful club in English football history. Even with the compete level ratcheted down to "friendly," an opportunity to see them live in the U.S. was irresistible. The team's roster is consistently stocked with global talent, the best from England, Denmark, Senegal, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, Bulgaria. United's glamor stopped me short when I saw a team jersey, "C. Ronaldo" stitched across the back.
"Ronaldo? Like, Cristiano Ronaldo?" I asked, stupidly proud at identifying one of the biggest names in sports. "Isn't he the captain of Team Portugal? Why did he play in the English Premier League?"
Answer: If you can, you will.
My interest in understanding why was enough to ignore the rain for a few hours.
You know what I learned? Friendly matches are weird.
I expected Man U to be booed during introductions. That's the standard. You turn your back as the roster is read, pretend to read a newspaper, scream 'SUCKS' after every name, or just . . . boo. That's the sports reality I've lived. Had I done any of that last night, I would have looked like a raging jerk. The Reds had more popular players than the Revs. Rooney turned out to be the Even-I-Know-That-Guy player for all 51,000 and received the heartiest roar of the night. The first good chance on goal, created by Man U, made the crowd in Foxboro go wild.
It made me wonder.
Are they really trying?
New England was supposed to get crushed. Just demolished. "Like if the Red Sox starters played Portland," a co-worker guessed.
So how hard was United pushing? Nobody likes to lose, I know that. I can just imagine the pregame pressers: "We're taking this seriously," Macheberbanand or whoever would say. "We want to win just like any other match." Yeah, okay. I'll buy that.
But on a scale of "We Showed Up" to "Liverpool is in Town," where did United's effort fall Wednesday night?
I felt silly to have no idea.
My brain went into hyperdrive when the halftime score showed nil-nil.
Are the Revs really excited right now? Is Sir Alex Ferguson bawling out his team on the other side? Or is Man U just toying with our innocent MLS babes? Will the Premier League's champion take the gloves off and enact second-half slaughter? Is the offsides rule similar to the NHL's? How do they play without red lines? Are there zones? What language am I hearing from the fans behind me? Is it Bulgarian? Does "wanker" mean what I think it means?
The reason soccer fascinates me might be the reason why so many Americans hate it.
I don't know what the hell I'm watching.
The major sports in this country are littered with measurable points of success and failure. A baseball player gets on first base -- that's good. That guy reaches second and he's in scoring position -- even better. A football player gains a first down -- that's good. He gets tackled for a loss -- that's bad. A spectator can quickly run a mental gamut on what it will take for his team to score or the opposition to prevent the score. There are several, small wins and losses -- a 3-pointer in hoops, 40 shots on goal saved in hockey -- to react to in these games that it's easy to stay engaged. And it satisfies that yen for instant gratification.
"Sometimes in soccer you have to move back to go forward," I was told last night.
There are people out there, many who were at last night's match, who reveled in their ignorance as I did. Those people gleefully annoyed the crap out of friends by asking stupid questions. As I did.
Why did that play break down? Was No. 17 being lazy, or was that play too tough to make? What differences in skill between teams am I not seeing? How long can the keeper hold the ball before he has to get rid of it? Can he pick the ball up if a teammate passes back to him? Does David Beckham still play in the U.S.? Is he a total wanker in person? He seems like he would be.
The Revs lost 4-1.
Don't call me a convert but I had a good time. And in sports? That's what I'm looking for.