FORT WORTH, Texas — I have a confession to make. Despite my perpetual, vociferous evangelism of lower-division soccer, I have never actually attended a single game of any of the semi-pro or amateur teams in my area. This, despite having several such clubs in existence for several years now within an hour’s drive. This, despite researching and writing about these clubs for years. The only club soccer I’ve watched live that didn’t involve FC Dallas in some capacity was the USL game I attended in St. Louis last August.
And really, I don’t have any excuse that doesn’t revolve around laziness or apathy. Tickets are reasonable, cheap even. Games are scheduled at times that don’t conflict with my standard routine. The stadiums are all easily accessible with a car and well within what I’d define as a reasonable driving distance.
So, time to put my money where my mouth has been for years.
Tonight, I’m attending a match at a local NPSL club, the Fort Worth Vaqueros. I’ve actually followed them online since their inception back in 2014. Yes, this is their fifth season of existence and my first game attended. I’m documenting my thoughts and experience as part of something I hope might become a series, or at the very least an interesting story. I can’t think of a better way to promote the support of local soccer than to actually go support it and promote it. I’m armed with my point-and-shoot digital camera and my phone for note taking in an attempt to do just that.
Tonight’s game sees the Vaqueros hosting a reserve team of Tigres UANL. It’s a Wednesday evening in North Texas and it’s warm. Google claims it’s currently 94 degrees, feels like 101, and I believe it. I’m sitting in the stadium as nondescript as possible. I’m not here as a fan or a journalist, but as someone experiencing this for the first time, documenting my thoughts and taking pictures as the night progresses. Coincidentally, the blue undershirt I wore to work today is very nearly the same shade of blue used by the home side. The sun is beginning to set, casting a comfortable shade on the primary grandstand.
The Vaqueros play at Farrington Field, a WPA-era stadium primarily intended for high school football. It’s about what I expect from a high school stadium in Texas, which is to say there’s metal-bleacher seating, maybe forty rows deep on both sides, a turf field with permanent football markings and a capacity of around 18,000. During high school, I spent just about every single Friday night and Saturday afternoon in such venues across the state thanks to marching band. Even if I haven’t physically been here before, it’s still incredibly familiar.
I arrive at 6:40 p.m. for what I thought was a 7 p.m. kickoff. I’m actually nearly an hour early. This leaves ample time to take pictures of a mostly empty stadium. I pass the time by writing this and walking around the venue. My ticket was $10, but apparently allows for two people to enter. A nice touch I’ll hopefully make use of in the future. Tickets are not what one might expect; they’re actually branded as vouchers without any specific home game indicated. One can buy these vouchers and use them at whatever game they attend. Students and staff of the local Fort Worth Independent School District receive free admission. I’m pleased to see scores of Vaqueros jerseys in the stands. This team runs a promotion where, rather than selling physical season tickets to fans, they sell the jersey as a season ticket every season. To get into games, one simply wears their jersey. I absolutely love this.
The local supporters’ group, the Panther City Hellfire, march in chanting with drums and flags. They’re remarkably well organized, with comprehensive chant sheets that are handed out to most of those in attendance. One chant in particular catches my eye, No. 17 on their sheet. Fort Worth has a player named Rio, therefore the Hellfire have adapted the eponymous Duran Duran song for him. I like that. I note that as the Hellfire hand out their chant sheets, they inform the spectators of their tendencies to light off smoke bombs after goals are scored, and give them plenty of opportunity to adjust their seating accordingly. There is no assigned seating here, possibly because the stadium lacks visible row and seat numbering. The stands here are configured so that the bottom two rows sit maybe three feet above the running track. This allows the supporters to get up close and personal with the home bench.
There’s a small contingent of Tigres supporters here, maybe 20 or so. They’re mostly seated around a solitary Tigres flag. I spot a dozen or so jerseys for the visitors among the crowd.
Fort Worth’s head coach Nick Stavrou is a local soccer legend, having played nearly 300 games with the original Dallas Sidekicks before becoming a coach. At age 43, he actually briefly returned to playing when the Dallas Sidekicks returned in 2012. I think I have his autograph at home somewhere. The Vaqueros have been a strong team lately, topping the Lonestar Conference table last season and winning three of four league games played in 2018.
The Vaqueros have a partnership with two unlikely foreign clubs through their owner: Alfreton Town F.C., which plays in the sixth tier of English soccer, and Tobago FC Phoenix 1976, which plays in the top flight in Trinidad and Tobago.
Ahead of kickoff, the two teams meet at midfield for the usual pomp and circumstance. I find my seat in the first row, close to the goal at the north end of the stadium. The announcer’s voice blasted through the public address reveals that this is the first international friendly to be played at historic Farrington Field. He will repeat this a half dozen more times before the night is over. A youth team I encountered before the game, comprising a mixture of children who appear to be somewhere around 6-8 years old, accompany the players tonight. Their team is apparently called the Owls and they all have on rather fantastically designed sublimated jerseys. Their logo in particular catches my eye; it’s excellently designed.
The ceremonies continue with the playing of the Mexican national anthem, and the display of an animated Tricolor on the full color video board. Everyone rises as prompted, and I faintly hear the visiting supporters singing along. The PA is remarkably clear. I find myself surprised at just how nice the speakers sound. The American national anthem follows, and hands in the crowd move from sides to chests. There are a handful singing along as well. It’s difficult to judge total attendance at a glance, but my best guess says there’s around a thousand people here. Not bad in the slightest for 7:30 on a Wednesday. The bulk of the crowd are seated mid field, between the two 30 yard lines. The bleachers in the front two rows and middle two rows have metal seat backs, and these are nearly all occupied along the entire grandstand.
The anthems come to a close, the Panther City Hellfire begin their chant and maybe fifteen seconds into their song, the PA plays some vague pop-rock song I don’t recognize. The Hellfire slowly come to a halt, unwilling or unable to compete with the loudspeakers. Fortunately, the PA goes quiet in time for kickoff, and the Hellfire pick up where they left off.
The youth team has returned from field level following their pregame participation and have set up shop in the sections to my immediate left. These children seem under-supervised, and they are running around the stands, hanging from railings and generally operating as children tend to do. I notice that a number of them are ducking under the railing at the front of the stands to get down to the running track, unimpeded. Interesting.
Sitting this close to the field allows me to hear the players and coaches clearly. Following an early goal kick, I catch the Vaqueros goalkeeper shouting to a defender, “It’s so fucking hot out here.” The shade has not yet engulfed the field despite its continuous progress, and he’s making an obvious point. The players on both sides are visibly sweating already.
The youthful exuberance proves to be a bit too distracting for me. I notice a family seated nearby reacting similarly, continuously turning their heads toward the commotion. After maybe fifteen minutes, I start to consider moving south along the side line. Tigres have been controlling much of the action so far, so my southward relocation brings me closer to the action.
As I’m watching the first half, it dawns on me that what I’m watching now is incredibly tough to distinguish from games I watched in USL Pro in 2012. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that NPSL teams have reached a level of play comparable to where the third division was roughly six years ago. This achievement is nothing short of remarkable and paints a positive picture for the progress achieved already.
Tigres strike first half an hour in, to the delight of the fans in yellow. There’s something to be said about the appearance of the two teams together. Blue and white versus yellow and blue makes for a colorful experience. From my new perspective at the southernmost point in the grandstand, I take several pictures of the players and crowd. Even from a tight angle, the Panther City Hellfire’s presence is immediately obvious. The crowd at large is not that loud, but again, it’s Wednesday and this stadium is massive. I imagine that a Friday or Saturday night fixture would bring in greater numbers and noise.
As the first half comes to an end, the visitors are up by a goal. The Panther City Hellfire have made continuous use of their chant sheets, shouting the number of the next song over a megaphone each time. I spot a handful of people without Vaqueros merchandise following along from their seats a half dozen rows above the supporters. Many of their songs are among what I would consider the standards of soccer, reworked for the city and club: a strong sense of civic pride west of the Trinity River. A few of them take shots at Dallas. The drum rhythms are simple but effective, and generate the accompaniment of clapping from the masses.
At halftime, I attempt to buy a scarf for my growing collection. I’m informed by the staff at the merchandise table that there are no scarves there, but that I should talk with the Hellfire. I debate internally purchasing a jersey and the intertwined season ticket. The team is now approaching halfway through its current NPSL season, so I elect to postpone it to next year. I surmise that, as tickets and concessions have been apparently cash-only at the stadium, and I’m running low on rectangular linen strips with dead faces, I likely will need to plan ahead for scarf acquisition.
There’s something to be said about attending a soccer game purely as a neutral. I’m not fully emotionally invested in the result, nor am I running through either of my usual gameday routines involving drums or Twitter. I’m sitting in the shade and relaxing, enjoying what is — in the context of Texas — lovely summer weather. For the past seven years or so, I’ve forgone trips to movie theaters in favor of local sporting events. Normally, that’s been hockey or baseball depending on the season, as the only soccer games I regularly attend require my attention directed away from the run of play. This change of pace is refreshing.
While watching the game and mentally comparing the scenes to what was higher level play than in years previous, I can’t help but consider the oft-repeated statements in dismiss of the likes of MLS, USL and women’s soccer in general. “I don’t watch any of that because it’s nowhere near as good as soccer in (insert league/country here).” This mentality has always been completely foreign to me from my earliest days around the sport. Maybe it’s because I only started watching in 2010 or so, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised playing the game, or maybe it’s because I lack some intangible necessary insight to evaluate relative quality. The idea of an allegedly inferior product deserving a lack of attention seems entirely arbitrary and contrary to the “love of the game.” I love this sport, this strange and beautiful sport, and I demonstrate that by consuming as much of it as possible. I think about the crowd assembled here, from the most passionate members of the Panther City Hellfire to the casuals attending their first game like me. I ask myself, are these not true soccer fans? I ask myself, why the hell haven’t I been here before? And I think about what people are missing by not coming here, what I was missing by not coming here before.
The announcer’s voice provides a mass invitation to the post-game party at the nearby World of Beer, where both teams’ players and staff will be present. This leads me to look closer at the various jerseys in the crowd and I find that most, if not all, have been signed. An interesting note on the jerseys: The Vaqueros have used a different jersey sponsor in each of their five seasons of play, and this is actually by design. The jersey sponsor is determined through a random drawing each preseason, with the current Miss Fort Worth in charge of selection. I can’t think of another club offhand that does this, and I like this tradition.
By 9 p.m., the game is past the 62nd minute and Tigres are up 2-0. Play has been fairly continuous and I can’t recall the issuance of any disciplinary cards. Both sides are still maintaining the intensity of the first half. This may be a friendly, but a win is still a win. Dusk has ceded to darkness, and my pocket-sized digital camera can’t handle the Wednesday night lights. The crowd has dwindled slightly, with many of the younger kids leaving. School isn’t out for the summer just yet. The Hellfire are still doing their various things, albeit with less intensity than an hour ago. I’m finding the metal bleacher seating much less comfortable than an hour ago and make a mental note that a stadium seat is not an optional accessory here. The announcer issues a reminder that time is kept on the field, which I interpret as “the stadium clock isn’t that accurate.”
At roughly 9:30, the referee signals fulltime with the scoreline unchanged. The scoreboard hasn’t quite reached the 90 minute mark, and the announcer’s previous actions are immediately justified. Everyone gradually staggers up the stairs and out the gates. The Hellfire light off blue and yellow smoke bombs in their section. I return to my car with my sunglasses still on.
The game and scoreline won’t stand as the greatest advertisement for lower-league soccer, but honestly it doesn’t even matter to me. I’d bet that many of the other first-timers tonight will be back again soon.
I definitely will be too.
I hope you enjoyed this unusual piece from me. This is a pretty dramatic departure from my typical ranting drivel, and I really enjoyed writing it. Every time I start a draft for Soc Takes, my goal is to write the sort of content I would enjoy reading, and this definitely fits that bill.
And yes, I’m aware my camera isn’t great. I got it for like $50 at the Denton Camera Exchange.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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