This is why we do it.
It’s the home opener. And you don’t have to be a player to feel that every ritual is a little bit heightened on game day. Ask any fan - even breakfast feels different.
Still, nerves on toast gamely dealt with, I get to the stadium early.
Not as early as our Senior Manager for IT, Gina Fremouw, who’s been here at the stadium since 4.30 a.m., so the TV cameras can run their cabling. She’d still been here when I left on Friday night too, answering multiple random questions on game day logistics, while also patiently dealing with hapless new staffers still trying to access the local network drive (I was asking for a friend). For a lot of the staff, time added on starts well before the game.
On Friday morning the game day staff gathered in one room for the first time since the last home game of last season, to run through the logistics of the day, and not incidentally, to experience a reminder of what we’re all here to do — create an environment for the first team to perform and provide the best possible matchday experience for our fans. From the staff coordinating the pregame ceremonies, to the Foundation team running the 50-50 raffle, everyone was being made aware of the part each other played and why we do it.
Now on game day itself, the heightened energy is apparent in the office. Even on non-match days a lot of club staffers tend towards wearing official club gear — there are people working for the team whose parents brought them to their first game, and the average cubicle in the office teems with stickers, posters and pennants from previous and current promotional campaigns, along with the obligatory family photos. But today, the game day dress code combines with the extra hum of energy, to make the people around me look transformed and extra purposeful.
For my part I feel a little self-conscious at first in my down club coat, though as I venture out to walk around the stadium I’m glad of the warmth, and for the hat I bought in the club shop this morning. After a bright start to the day, the wind is picking up and rain is a possibility. People are checking their phones every few minutes and casting wary eyes at the clouds forming in the distance — “It says there’s an 80% chance of rain by 1pm…”
Our senior VP of marketing, Kyle Sheldon, is distributing the new-look match day roster cards to the gates. I ask him where he’ll be watching the game. “I’ll probably move around and observe,” he says. “What about you?” And it occurs to me I haven’t quite figured out a vantage spot. As a journalist, or fan, or ball kid, or caterer, your experience of game day is directed and coded in a very particular way — the game is the focus, but your lens on it varies. As working press I’d occasionally bring a camera and apply for a photography pass to do photo essays from games, partly to experience a different perspective on games. The orange vest would confer a kind of “holy fool” status where you got to experience the player shouts and the intimate clatter of tackles and shots at field level, without anyone seeming to notice you were there.
Now, with an all-access pass, and a roving brief, I realize I’m not sure where to go. So after wandering out into the car park to say hello to some of the fan groups, and taking a couple of circuits of the stadium, and as the minutes tick down to kick off and I start to feel those feelings of partisan nerves again, I decide to go home from home to the press box. I nod to Frank Klopas doing his pre-game prep meeting with the broadcast team, say hello to a few familiar faces raising eyebrows at my team gear, find an empty seat and start to write.
The wind is picking up at kick off and after a few minutes it’s got even more pronounced. I text Kyle to tell him that the new roster cards, as well as being cool and collectible, are also handy for lying flat beside the computer, rather than being whipped up in the wind now hitting the exposed press seats high in the stadium.
The ball is being whipped around too. After a few promising chances for the Fire early in the game, and some indications that there’s space to be found behind Orlando’s defense, the elements start playing a bigger part. Long balls routinely sail beyond the touchlines and the game’s early promise becomes more attritional as both sides dig in.
At half-time the press box is full of talk about this looking like a typical 0-0, and it’s hard to argue. The weather is worsening and it’s hard to see how quality can gain any hold in these conditions. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s been patiently retrieving and initiating sequences, following through on each pass with that distinctive curving sweep of the leg that reminds you of a particularly elegant golf swing, but this isn’t a day for the type of team fluidity that the Los Angeles performance hinted at. This is a day for digging something out.
The second half starts and, immediately, calamity, as Dom Dwyer reacts quickest to a moment of uncertainty at the back. The ball seems to take forever to loop into the net, but it’s 1-0 Orlando, and the conditions are worsening. It’s hard to see where another goal is coming from and when Jorge Corrales is sent off in the 64th minute, it’s even harder.
I’ve written elsewhere about what happened next, with Veljko Paunovic making bold substitutions and refusing to concede the game. Still, with 15 minutes to go I’m thinking I can make up the remainder of my notes from game footage and I decide to see out the remainder of the game with the fans in the stands.
The rain is tipping down and a few people have seen enough and are heading for their cars. But most are still standing, hoping. After posting up for a couple of minutes in a few different spots, looking for a superstitious lucky one, I find myself making my way over to the corner by Section 133. I can feel the helpless anxiety in the fans around me. Some of it’s coming from me. I look to my right where a family is standing watching the game intently, with the parents and their daughter dancing an absent-minded samba to keep warm, skipping to the rhythm of the supporters’ incessant drums.
Four minutes time is added on. The first one passes, then the second, then the third. Orlando gets a free kick. My phone pings. I’m needed in the office directly at final whistle. I consider the route back there through departing crowds from where I’m standing. But the game. There’s still 30 seconds…
Reluctantly I step round the back of the executive boxes to the concourse, fumbling for the live feed on my phone with frozen fingers.
Then I hear it.
This is why we do it.
The game ends and I get back to the office, where staffers are drifting back in from their posts, some already playing replays of CJ Sapong’s goal on their phones. After a meeting with a few of my new colleagues, I head to a desk to review my notes and the game footage. As I work, club coats are hung in cubicles around me, the office chatter is dying down, and as darkness falls there are fewer headlights moving round the car park. I try to write.
Eventually I leave an almost empty office into the dark, and I think I see Gina’s coat still on the back of her chair. She’s somewhere out in the stadium ushering the TV crews out until next time. An array of returned ops team walkie talkies sits on a shelf behind her desk. But no more talking now. The home opener has come to a close.