On Location: Club Atlas 2-1 Newcastle United

Last summer, the state of Wisconsin held the biggest soccer event in the state since 1990, when the men’s national team rolled into Milwaukee County Stadium to play East Germany in the aftermath of the World Cup. The 1990 match, the first and only time the national team has ever been in the state, was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. The match was set for July 28, but as late in  the process as May, a woeful lack of advertising and seriously underwhelming ticket sales led to speculation that the friendly would be moved to Boston. Somehow, the fixture was rescued, but an originally-expected 25,000 fans manifested at the gate as an official attendance of 12,574. The East Germans barely made it in themselves; what was supposed to be a direct flight from Berlin to Milwaukee wound up turning into an overnight layover in New York and a diverted connection in St. Louis.

The United States lost 2-1 that day to an East German squad that would go on to play only one more match, a 2-0 victory over Belgium, before reunification with the west. Adding to the frustrations that day was the fact that defenseman Jimmy Banks, a local player that was supposed to serve as the marquee attraction on the day, ended up instead serving a one-game suspension due to picking up two yellow cards at the World Cup. He didn’t find out until the day before the game.

24 years passed. An indoor outfit, the Milwaukee Wave, would serve as the only professional soccer-adjacent outpost in the state for the next quarter-century. It’s where Banks came from when he was picked for the World Cup, and it’s where he would go back to to finish his career in the days prior to MLS. He would never play for any other club; since 1999, he’s managed at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Then Chivas Guadalajara and Swansea City arrived last summer. It may only have been a functionally meaningless preseason friendly that they were in town to play, but for the state’s soccer-starved population, it was a blessed acknowledgement that they existed too. 31,237 arrived to make sure they made themselves louder than anything the Brewers had heard in a long time. The crowd as a whole was heavily pro-Chivas, but if you didn’t have apparel of either of the two teams, nobody cared. In fact, the sheer variety of teams represented, international, pro, amateur, local high schools, even defunct (in the case of one fan wearing an LA Aztecs shirt), simply added to the color of the occasion. Root for whoever you want. Just get out here and root so they’ll bring us more games. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but more importantly, plans were quickly put into place to hold another game this year. Success. A second game was held this past Tuesday.

The formula for selecting the teams was fairly simple: as anyone who remembers the Chivas USA saga already knows, Chivas has a policy of using only Mexican-born players, a policy that ran afoul of discrimination laws in the US, but in their home country makes them heroes, and as such, is guaranteed to draw out any city’s Mexican community in force. It helps that they’re also a traditional power in Liga MX, though they haven’t won a title since the 2006 Apertura and lately have in fact had to start trying to fend off relegation. Swansea City, meanwhile, is an English Premier League club. Any old EPL club will do, really; the bigger ones are busy playing in NFL stadiums, so just get whoever you can. The 12th-place finisher from the previous season will do fine.

As that turned out to work so well, the formula didn’t change for this year: a mainstay of Liga MX vs. any old EPL side that can be bothered. This time, the Liga MX representative was Chivas’ local rival Atlas. Atlas doesn’t have the trophy case Chivas does- their only title came in 1951- but coming in third in last season’s aggregate table isn’t a bad substitute for that. The EPL representative: Newcastle United, who last season only secured safety on the last day when Hull City, needing a win and help, drew Manchester United 1-1 while Newcastle beat West Ham United 2-0. Their final position was 15th.

While in the US, Newcastle also scheduled games against Sacramento Republic and Portland Timbers 2 before returning to England to serve as the opposition for the testimonial match of longtime Sheffield United defenseman Chris Morgan.

As a one-off match designed to get people out to Miller Park, of course, little attention could be expected to be paid to how this game would actually play out. And there was almost zero chat about that as far as I noticed. It was a smaller crowd- 21,256, perhaps depressed by a combination of Atlas being less of a name than Chivas, as well as the fact that the match was scheduled directly against the MLB All-Star Game- but it was still quite sizable by the standards of what Atlas and Newcastle figured would happen, and that crowd had an agenda utterly unrelated to the match itself: get professional soccer into Milwaukee on a long-term basis. The Wave is not sufficient. It never was.

There are actually two separate groups looking to make this happen. One, out in force at the game, is the Milwaukee Barons. The Barons are a supporter group in search of a team, which before you say anything is pretty much how the Philadelphia Union got started. The theory: get together, show yourselves as a group that will show up for games, take season-ticket pledges to show how much money a club would stand to make, and hope the leagues listen.

The second group, interestingly enough, is just such a team: the Milwaukee Torrent, currently in construction, scheduled to hold open tryouts in October to fill their initial roster, and slated to begin play next year in the American Soccer League, which began play only last year as a northeastern regional league. The Torrent is supposed to be part of the ASL’s expansion into the rest of the country. The problem is, the ASL currently doesn’t really have a stated ‘tier’ in the American league system, and didn’t even have a berth in the US Open Cup yet (we’ll see about next year). So while you’d think the Barons would simply latch onto the Torrent and be off to the races, the Barons are holding out for a team starting out in higher prominence, in USL or NASL.

The Torrent did not have a presence at Atlas/Newcastle, at least as far as I observed. However, taking a census of every side I did see (jersey or other official paraphernalia), I counted 74 different clubs- 18 of them in-state- representing ten different countries. 22 national sides were also spotted: Mexico, the United States, Portugal, Germany, England, Croatia, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden, France, Poland, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Colombia, Italy, the Philippines, Ghana, the Netherlands, and Finland.

Among the clubs, there were five MLS clubs seen (New York Red Bulls, Chicago, Orlando, Seattle and Portland). Liga MX showed 11: Monarcos Morelia, Chivas, Atlas, Cruz Azul, Leon, Tigres, Club America, Pumas, Puebla, Monterrey and Pachuca. The EPL showed 12: Newcastle United, Aston Villa (not even having to count myself), Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, West Ham, and Leicester City.

The media declared the night another success. The teams… well, they had no problem with the turnout, anyway, at least if Newcastle coach Steve McClaren’s comments were any indication.

The game was another matter. Atlas and Newcastle, in a way, are photographic negatives of each other. Atlas is a moderately successful-yet-hungry club in a moderately successful-yet-hungry league. Mexico annually finds one of its clubs representing CONCACAF in the Club World Cup, but is still searching for that first appearance in the final. Atlas is in the higher echelons of Liga MX, but falls just short of getting to play continentally, and any chance it can get to show itself to the world, even a preseason friendly in Wisconsin, is not a chance to be wasted. Meanwhile, England has long thought highly of itself as the home and pinnacle of the sport, even as that thinking has repeatedly translated into hubris that has cost them dearly in the clutch. The EPL has long thought itself the best league in the world, even when the Champions League era (1992/93 and beyond) has only given them four champions to La Liga’s eight and Serie A’s five (and the Bundesliga’s three), and the same timeframe in the UEFA Cup/Europa League has only given them two winners, a number equal with Russia and Portugal. And Newcastle United, barely skirting relegation last season, is not at all concerned with winning their league, but would be content merely to remain in it. Which means all energies are concentrated on preparing for the Premier League.

It leads to two completely different approaches to a preseason friendly. And it manifested immediately as one man ran rampant. Atlas forward Gonzalo Bergessio, freshly signed from Sampdoria, within the first minute crashed into Newcastle defenseman Mike Williamson, and was brought down in the box by defenseman Jamaal Lascelles, leading to a converted penalty in the 10th minute. He struck again in the 17th, and nearly completed the hat trick in the 22nd but hit the post. For most of the rest of the half, Newcastle looked like a team that had actually been relegated instead of a team that had averted it, offering little response to Atlas’ continued pace control. The crowd, though the teams might have thought it exciting, seemed to me to be rather quiet, almost casually conversational. For the record, my seat was in the sixth row behind home plate, which in Miller Park’s soccer configuration meant I was staring at a corner flag, so it’s not like I was away from the action or anything.

Not that there wasn’t any response. As had been the case last year with Chivas’ fans, anytime the Newcastle goalkeeper (Tim Krul was starting) would line up for a goal kick, the crowd would yell ‘PUTO!’ as boot met ball. This is a trope common to the Mexican game, transferred to the national team’s matches. ‘Puto’ translates to ‘fag’, and in recent years Mexican soccer has come under fire for continuing to permit it. The fans, for their part, say they don’t mean it as a gay slur, and merely intend it as a synonym for cowardice, as Americans might call someone ‘chicken’, and further state that it, and the female equivalent puta, are widely used in other aspects of life. Or more to the point, they intend it to distract the goalkeeper and nothing more.

To which I say, ‘pollo’, the actual Spanish word for chicken, is the same amount of syllables and makes for a very easy linguistic substitute for ‘puto’. And we’ve used ‘gay’ as a perjorative in the US too, but we’re in the process of phasing it out as such. But anyway.

Slowly, Newcastle began to find their voice, as forward Papiss Cisse pulled one back in first-half stoppage time. And after the half, Atlas had opted to defend their three points that didn’t really exist because it was a one-off friendly. Cisse appeared to score the equalizer in the 53rd off a headed corner, with the ball falling a foot or so behind the line before it was defended. But referee Kevin Terry Jr., normally a 4th official in MLS, failed to notice and called no goal. Given the low stature of the match and the fact that it was a converted baseball stadium, goal line technology was not available, and the score remained 2-1. There, it would remain, as Newcastle’s attack was far more scattershot than Atlas’, and while they were threatening late, they weren’t truly threatening.

The crowd, towards the end, had begin to sound like a proper soccer crowd… but the action on the field wasn’t what was doing it. After numerous failed attempts from the Atlas side to start a wave, the Newcastle fans succeeded in the mid-60’s. The roar of the crowd as they rose out of their seats to keep the wave going was louder than anything else on the night.

The true review of the match came towards the end, in the 85th minute. As per a promotional offer, the first 10,000 fans were to receive a double-sided scarf with one team on each side. Presumably, everyone would then hold up their preferred side during the game. but by the time the gates opened, the scarves were absent, held up due to the day’s patchy weather. Upon entry, the first 10,000 fans instead got rain checks for the scarves. In the 85th minute, an announcement went over the PA that the scarves had arrived and were available to the fans with rain checks on the main concourse behind the first-base line.

The review of the game is thus: is the match you’re watching interesting enough to where you’re willing to wait five whole minutes to go get a free scarf?

No. In fact, hell no. Immediately, large chunks of the crowd got up out of their seats and made for the concourse. There was no chance they’d make it back to their seats in time to see any more of the game, but it mattered not. They were free. And so was the scarf.

In theory, Atlas and Newcastle provided an intriguing juxtaposition, but on grass, it didn’t play out like that. Early in the game, Atlas was hungry to prove themselves, while Newcastle was unconcerned with much beyond Premier League preparation. As time progressed, Newcastle became desperate for a result- perhaps too desperate- but by then, Atlas had their result and now merely wanted to maintain it. One side attacked, and then the other, but never both at the same time.

But that’s a thing you only really realize once the whistle blows. Everyone ultimately got what they were looking for out of the game: the fans got a game, the Brewers got some extra revenue, the city of Milwaukee got some international name recognition, Atlas got a win, Newcastle got… well, okay, maybe Newcastle didn’t find what they were looking for, and would like to actually lose something they have, namely Mike Williamson. A substantial crowd showed up again and the reaction they did give was more than enough for the teams involved, meaning there will almost certainly be a third match next summer, and if the proliferation of Leon jerseys I witnessed at Miller Park was any indication, I’d put my money on them being placed in a starring role.

Who definitely won’t be in a starring role is the Milwaukee Wave. The Wave were one of the 74 clubs I witnessed being represented, but I only saw one man representing them. I saw him twice, both at the same place prior to entering the stadium: on a footbridge passing over I-94. On one side of the footbridge is Miller Park, and the main parking lot, chiefly containing the Atlas supporters. On the other was a pregame tailgate in a secondary lot hosted by the Milwaukee Barons, chiefly containing the Newcastle supporters. The man in the Wave uniform was alone on the footbridge, seemingly noticed by few.

And a microcosm of the goal of all involved: shove indoor soccer into the wilderness once and for all. It is no longer needed. It was never needed in the first place.

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