By Dave JohnsonCSNwashington.com
The push for the playoffs was over. There was nothing to play for. Still D.C. United fans turned out in numbers on fan appreciation night. The 15,965 that rocked R.F.K. Stadium in Saturdays 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City was another example of Major Leagues Soccer true arrival in this county.
The stadium did rock despite the disappointment of the loss and the seasons abrupt end, with no playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Sixteen years and the passion for D.C. United is strong and perhaps even stronger given the teams recent struggles on the field. A meaningless match with 15-thousand plus in attendance in later October was practically inconceivable when MLS was launched.
As always, working from left to right on the side opposite the benches, were the ardent supporters groups. District Ultras, La Norte, Screaming Eagles, and Barra Brava waving flags and making old R.F.K. seem young again. The score and circumstances didnt matter. They screamed U-N-I-T-E-D until the very end.
MLS is making it in this country. Again the question about when will soccer arrive in the U.S. should be scratched. The game is here and it is staying and growing. The league set an attendance record with an average attendance of 17,872 per game and finally surpassed the previous high of 17,406 set in the first season.
Back in 1996 fans came out to kick the tires and see what MLS was all about. Now fans are forming a fan culture and in the protest vernacular of the day occupying stadiums. Even in places where attendance could use some work, Columbus, Dallas, and New England, come to mind, there are pockets of passion that provide life to the stadiums without large crowds.
The Seattle Sounders have set the bar for putting people in seats or should I say giving fans a place to stand and hold scarves while singing. The Sounders incredibly averaged over 38,000 fans per game and in Kasey Kellers final regular season game drew 64,140 on the October 15th weekend was the fourth largest crowd in the world behind Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
The expansion Vancouver Whitecaps F.C. added to the Canadian success of MLS with an average attendance of over 20,000 fans per game. Toronto F.C. continues to pull big numbers despite on field ineptitude that has plagued the team since it launch in 2007. A crowd of 21,600 turned out to see T.F.C. close out its regular season at home and there is talk of playing a CONCACAF Champions League game in March at the much larger Rogers Centre.
Along with D.C. pulling close to 16,000 for its match with no meaning against Sporting K.C., large crowds also turned up for other matches with no playoff implication for the home team. The Chicago Fire still recorded a sell-out crowd of 20,237 for its match on Saturday against Columbus. Chivas U.S.A. attracted over 22,000 for its season closer against Seattle
In San Jose the Earthquakes, another non-playoff team, brought in extra seats for its match Saturday against F.C. Dallas. The Quakes celebrated San Joses rich soccer history, including a Quakes franchise that was one of the most consistent crowd-pullers in the old NASL, and jammed an overflow crowd of 10,774 into Buck Shaw Stadium.
On Sunday in Houston, the game had meaning and Dynamo fans responded with the sixth largest crowd in Robertson Stadium history. The Dynamo clinched second place in the Eastern Conference with a win over the L.A. Galaxy before 30,018. It was also the final regular season game at Robertson Stadium.
Robertson Stadium is not Anfield or Old Trafford. It is the football home for the University of Houston complete with lines all over the field. Yet the fans turned out in their orange jerseys like it was one of those English football cathedrals.
Soccer fans no longer have to apologize for crowd numbers and have so much to be proud of.