Sometimes fate conspires to present you with the opportunity of a lifetime. I recently took a business trip to London and found both time and a ticket to the Watford-West Brom match on April 4. After numerous trips to Europe, I was finally able to attend a Premier League match and I could not wait to see if it was truly different from my U.S. soccer experiences.
I took an Overland train from Euston Station to Watford High Street. Since it was a Tuesday night game in April, the car was fairly crowded but with few soccer fans. I’m used to attending sporting events in cities and going through the neighbourhoods to the stadiums. This was the first time I’ve ever passed a tombstone store on my way to a stadium. For those who have never been, the trek from Watford High Street station to Vicarage Road winds through town in a rather roundabout way, but on game days there are enough people taking the route to and from to lead even the most directionally challenged fan.
After a perfunctory stop in the team store to ensure I fit in, I decided to grab a hot dog outside the stadium and skip the pub experience. That allowed me to walk to my gate, squeeze through an authentically old gate, and almost literally fall onto the smallest concourse I’ve ever encountered. And, 45 minutes before the match, I was all alone. I figured most people would be at a pub, but it was unnerving that there were no small crowds walking a concourse as you get in most American sporting events. I grabbed a pint and when the teams came onto the field to warm up, I downed my beer and walked to the field.
When I first realised my business travel would allow me to attend a match, I in no way figured I would even get a ticket, much less a field level ticket. My seat was in the front row of the Elton John section, so I walked up to the barrier around the field and watched up close as the Watford players warmed up. I’ve been on the field for an American sporting event, but this was different. The players were bigger – much bigger. And they were faster. Since this was an April match, the routine for the players and staff was well established. Players like M’Baye Niang were big, fast, and athletic. The only thing I could compare them to in my mind were healthier NFL players. Years ago, I watched Everton play DC United in a summer friendly and was aghast at the height difference. Watching Watford warm up brought back that memory and reminded me why the Premier League has some of, if not the best, soccer in the world.
From where I was sitting, I could experience all my favourite parts of the match. When the whistle blew, the chanting started. And continued. And continued. At an American soccer match, the home team supporters’ section cheers for most of the game. I’m a member of the DC United Screaming Eagles but this experience – even though I sat across from them – made me realise what I was missing. The crowd at Vicarage Road had two major advantages over an American soccer crowd. The first was the depth of cheers. At an MLS match, even the best sections only have a few cheers and they are sometimes independent of what’s occurring on the field. The canned chants to keep the energy up are enjoyable, but this was different. Every instance, every key player, had their own chant. In the 75th minute as Watford’s energy was waning, the crowd broke out a perfectly timed “COME ON WATFORD”. The well-known Etienne Capoue chant made a few appearances each time he made a good play. Each action on the field was met with an equal chant perfect for the moment.
The second difference was the opposing cheering section. At most MLS games, there is a cheering section but it is vastly smaller and placed far away from the action. At this match, the West Brom fans matched the home side’s cheering. Maybe it was the smaller stadium, but it was easy to hear both supporters’ sections throughout the entire game. It generated an atmosphere unlike anything I’d ever experienced at an American sporting event.
Another difference was the knowledge of the match and what it meant. My section had fans with admittedly more means and thus were slightly older than other sections. The entire match there was running commentary from all around me, and it was about the match itself. When Miguel Britos was shown a second yellow, the two gents behind me broke down the tackle while the pair next to me analysed the referees’ dodgy decisions to that point. MLS and televised European games have helped Americans understand the game, but when I’ve sat in comparable seats at an MLS match you get this kind of banter from some people, but not everyone. This repeated itself after the match. As I joined the crowd leaving the field, everyone around me was talking about what the match meant. Some people were going through the fixture list to pick a final points total. Two people next to me broke down the next match against Tottenham as if they were Sky Sports pundits. The extreme level of knowledge reminded me of how Americans talk about other sports; hopefully one day they will discuss soccer the same way.
During this incredible experience, there was one thing that reminded me of an MLS match and I think it was because of the kind of club Watford is. The match was a particularly important one to Watford as they aimed to avoid slipping back into a relegation battle. After battling for 30 minutes down a man, against a team above them in the standings that defeated them 3-1 away, the emotion on the players’ faces was palpable. When the final whistle blew, most of the fans stayed and applauded the players. The players, after taking a breath and shaking hands, did the same and walked the pitch to applaud the fans. This was the kind of fan-player relationship I see every time I attend an MLS match. I think MLS players understand that soccer is a growing game in the U.S. but still kind of a novelty, and so they respect those fans who try to create a passionate atmosphere for the matches. What I saw at the end of the Watford match was what I see at the end of every hard-fought DC United match; the players taking a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the fans, especially those in the cheering section.
In that moment, I felt at home in the match and felt like I was not an outsider. Then the players left the field and I was back on the street, trying to navigate my way past the tombstone store on my way to a 45-minute train ride to Euston.