Taylor: Soccer has a place in American sports

Probably for the first time ever, I feel I did July Fourth right this year.

Warming up two days earlier, I went to see the Cubs’ first-ever appearance at the Oakland Coliseum. America’s favorite pastime rewarded me with a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth and a thrilling comeback for the A’s. On the day itself, I ate a secret-family-recipe apple pie before rowing out onto the Bay to watch the fireworks light up the night sky above Redwood City.

But it was the events right here on campus a few days earlier that made this year’s holiday special for me.

On Sunday, June 30, the San Jose Earthquakes welcomed the Los Angeles Galaxy to Stanford Stadium in another California Clásico rivalry game. A year ago I was lucky enough to watch the same contest from the media box high above the field. The stadium looked packed, you could even hear the cheering throughout from the heavens, and the Quakes edged an eventful 4-3 contest to seal a home win. I had never seen Stanford Stadium that full or that loud; I was impressed.

But watching live sports isn’t really about watching live sports; it’s about living them. So this year, instead of watching from safety and security up high, I went and sat down in the stands to join everyone else.

Once the sun had set and my friends and I could actually look out across the field without risking vision damage — I realize now why those seats were so cheap — I could finally focus both on the game and on my surroundings. The Galaxy played a better first half and headed into the break ahead 1-0. And strangely, I was enjoying that fact. Not because I’m an LA fan, but because the fans weren’t happy. Even little kids were berating the referee and groaning in despair each time the Quakes lost out to bad play or bad calls. It was clear this game really meant something to those around me.

This contest wasn’t thrilling every second of the way through, but that is no criticism; such games are a vanishing rarity in any sport, even the American ones. The last two baseball games I went to — a walk-off home win in the tenth for the Padres and the comeback win for the A’s — were frustratingly slow for sizeable chunks. Real fans, though, know that, and I appeared to be surrounded by them.

Things went from bad to worse in the second half for the Quakes. LA scored again, and though San Jose got one back in the 68th minute, Victor Bernandez’s being sent off just nine minutes later reduced the Quakes to 10 men. There was just no way the home team was going to win this one.

The locals around me were suffering. It was awesome. No one left.

I hope that it wasn’t just because of the post-game fireworks, but whatever the reason they stayed, it doesn’t really matter. That Sunday night, complete with the Stars and Stripes arriving by parachute, troops marching out across the field during the half-time break and even a rather strange incident with a flag-laden airship — whose wobbly flight out of the stadium didn’t quite inspire confidence — soccer felt as American as apple pie. And to top it all, 50,000 people, most of them locals, were treated to one of the best last-gasp showdowns I’ve seen.

The LA fans were already celebrating victory over their bitter NorCal rivals when Shea Salinas pounced on a loose ball deep in injury time to level it from close range. Barely a minute later, Sam Cronin’s cross picked out Alan Gordon and the forward’s header from close range stunned the visiting team and fans into silence. The rest of the stadium was on its feet in deafening applause.

Whatever their feelings pregame, it’s hard to imagine that anyone left that game still unconvinced as to whether soccer really has a place in this country. Unlike the big four of the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, the MLS cannot claim to be the best league in the world, but it can certainly fight its own corner.

The battle is finally won: Soccer might not be America’s favorite pastime, but it is now an American sport.

Tom Taylor came out of retirement to write an encore piece because The Daily refused to give him a retirement package. Beg him not to sue The Daily at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.