Friday, August 28, 2015

The real meaning of Real Madrid's visit

For those of you who went to the Union-Real Madrid game, and even for those of you who watched it on TV or online, ask yourself this: Did you have fun?

The real meaning of Real Madrid's visit

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Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid defeated the Union, 2-1, on Saturday at the Linc. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid defeated the Union, 2-1, on Saturday at the Linc. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

Time for a long post, because it’s been a while since I’ve uncorked one, and this seems like a good time for it. Stick around all the way until the end and you’ll find video highlights from the game, and audio of both coaches’ postgame press conferences. Real Madrid’s is in Spanish, but I figure that enough of you know the language that it’s worth posting.

Many of you know that I write about college basketball during the winter, just as I write about soccer during the summer. As I reflect on the Union’s 2-1 loss to Real Madrid, the conclusion that I draw from the match is that it was just like a lot of basketball games I’ve seen in recent years.

For those of you who don’t follow college basketball, here’s how the analogy works. Two teams play each other in the middle of December. One is a really big school, with a big budget, a big fan base, and a big television contract that makes the school recognized throughout the land. Take, for example, the University of North Carolina.

The other school is smaller, has a fraction of the budget and a fraction of the fan base, and doesn’t get on television nearly as often. Take, for example... well, okay, it really wouldn’t surprise you at all that I picked the University of Pennsylvania, would it.

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But the reason why I picked UNC and Penn is not because I spend more time covering the Quakers than any other local school. It’s because as I watched Saturday’s game, I thought back to when the Quakers and Tar Heels played at the Palestra back in 2007. The buzz around that game had some similarities to the fanfare that surrounded Real Madrid’s visit to Lincoln Financial Field.

Here was one of the true superpowers of college basketball, taking a relatively rare road trip to play a school whose athletic department doesn’t even give scholarships.

Granted, the Tar Heels had some perfectly legitimate reasons to come to town. Among their best players was Wynnewood, Pa., native and Episcopal Academy alum Wayne Ellington. They also had a coach in Roy Williams who genuinely embraces the great traditions of college basketball, and who had coached at the Palestra once before with another powerhouse, Kansas.

Whatever the reasons for UNC’s visit, it was a big deal. Penn has a history of playing significant non-conference games, but Carolina was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation at the time. Penn was starting a rebuilding process, having lost four seniors at the end of the previous season. In short, everyone expected the game to be a blowout.

(And that was without knowing yet that the Quakers were headed for one of the worst stretches in program history over the next few years. But I digress.)

The Palestra was packed to the rafters as the teams took the floor, and large swaths of the crowd were wearing that famous shade of light blue from Tobacco Road. Sure, Penn had its following, but it was no home atmosphere for the Quakers. All anyone wearing red hoped for was that Penn would put in a respectable performance, especially with a national television audience watching.

(On an English-language ESPN network, I might add, but I digress again.)

The game did indeed end up as a blowout, a 106-71 win for North Carolina. It was 50-37 at halftime, and the Tar Heels won the second half by a 56-34 margin. Ellington scored 13 points in total, and fellow superstar Tyler Hansbrough recorded 29 points and 10 rebounds.

Anyone who saw the Quakers for the first time that night would have thought they were totally outclassed, and they were.

But the sellout crowd that filled college basketball’s most historic gym that night got to see three things of consequence.

First and foremost, they got to watch with their own eyes a superstar-laden Carolina team that would reach the Final Four later that season.

Second, they got to see a breakout performance from Penn freshman guard Tyler Bernardini, whose 26 points were eclipsed only by Hansbrough’s 29.

And third, they got to see a full house at the Palestra. As anyone who has ever been to a game on 33rd Street can attest to, that is always a good thing no matter what teams are involved.

On Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, soccer fans in Philadelphia got to see their own set of three things of consequence.

First and foremost, they got to watch with their own eyes a superstar-laden Real Madrid squad featuring such big names as Cristiano Ronaldo, Meszut Özil, Kaka and Karim Benzema.

Second, they got to see an entire team of Union players who refused to put their heads down after giving up two early goals. Yes, it took Philadelphia a while to find its bearings, but the Union created chances, and in the 80th minute Michael Farfan scored a terrific goal that the team truly deserved.

And third, they got to see a crowd of 57,305 fans at Lincoln Financial Field for a soccer game. Not the Eagles or Penn State-Temple or Army-Navy or U2. Soccer. That sport that HappyBob and all the rest of you commenters love so much.

Last night's crowd was bigger than the crowds that attended either of the big matches at the Linc last year. The Union’s friendly against Manchester United attracted 44,213 fans, and the United States’ World Cup sendoff match against Turkey attracted 55,407 fans. 

As best I can tell, the Union-Real Madrid crowd was the second-largest crowd for a soccer game ever at Lincoln Financial Field. The Manchester United-Barcelona game that opened the stadium in 2003 sold the place out - 68,396 to be precise - and the Manchester United-Celtic game in 2004 drew 55,421 fans.

The main point I want to make is this: the game was fun. I realize that a lot of people across MLS believe that these friendlies against European superpowers are a waste of time, and their case is bolstered when we see results like the Seattle Sounders’ 7-0 blowout loss to Manchester United.

Sometimes, though, the little team holds its own against the big team. It didn’t happen last Wednesday in Seattle, and it didn’t happen on that night back in 2007 at the Palestra. But it did happen this time around.

Even though I was in a glass-enclosed press box during the game, I could tell that fans all over Lincoln Financial Field cheered for the Union when Michael Farfan scored. I’m pretty sure Farfan isn’t the only person who left the stadium with a memory that will last for a long time.

What really matters is if some of those fans who came to the Linc decide to go to a Union game later in the year. Then the club gets a dividend that will mean even more than the big paycheck it landed from hosting Real Madrid.

You can be entertained by a match like this, and you can believe in the ideal of growing soccer and its core fan base through winning trophies. The two concepts do not have to be mutually exclusive.

(At this point, I would like to say a special hello to my readers in Seattle, who I gather didn’t have anything to do tonight. You should have come to my live chat if you were really that bored.)

For those of you who went to the Union-Real Madrid game, and even for those of you who watched it on TV or online, ask yourself this: Did you have fun?

If you answered yes, that might not be such a bad thing.

And now that it’s over, as the old saying goes, we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.



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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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