Houston Dynamo 2 Columbus Crew 2 (13th Sept 2014)
The game in the USA does seem to have come a long way since I first saw a game there in 2001. The standard has certainly improved, as has the lure of the MLS to both fans and an increasing number of players who choose to play out the final years of their careers, while still at an age when they can do a proper job on the pitch.
Perhaps the biggest change is in the stadiums. I saw Chicago Fire play in the since rebuilt Soldier Field, with an optimistic attendance figure of 20,000 rattling around a 60,000+ NFL bowl of a stadium.
The push has been for “soccer specific stadiums”, sized around 20,000+, to create a better atmosphere, as well as looking all round more appealing for fans and TV.
Perhaps one of the best is BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, housing 22,000 in a partially covered stadium, close enough to downtown to be walkable, which is certainly a novelty for anyone in Houston.
Another very welcome novelty for Houston is that the street outside the ground is packed with bars. Who’d have thought a city derided for its lack of nightlife would offer one of the best locations for a pre-match pint or two?
While there are a few blocks in the downtown area that have a few bars and a bit of life, the impression of it being a collection of office blocks and parking lots is hard to shake off. Worse is being there on a Sunday morning, where the eerily deserted streets feel like being on the set of Zombie Apocalypse, and you expect to see an army of the undead shuffling round the corner at any moment. Then again, some of the people who hung around the Dollar Shop on Main Street did make me wonder.
The ground is also as far from a depressingly empty bowl as could be. First up is the outside of the stadium, which is certainly distinctive. An irregular angled steel mesh hovers over the stands like a giant origami ashtray, miles away from the “retail park warehouse” look so favoured in England.
Inside, two tiers of (very) orange seats wrap round the pitch – yes they even call “the field” a pitch at this stadium – and the orange theme continues on the concourse, where something as simple as a paint job can make a breeze block wall look homely (in the British sense of the word).
Maybe the local pubs helped, but the fans seemed quite up for the game, even if the Dynamo’s season has been pretty lacking in dynamism this year. It bought a response from the home team too, and it was no surprise to see them take an early lead, heading a corner across the keeper into the empty far side of the net.
It wasn’t one-way by any means. In fact as the half progressed Columbus were having more shots, but it just didn’t seem to be their day. Even when a penalty seemed to give them the chance to get back into the game, a further discussion between ref and linesman saw the decision reversed, and the ball removed from the spot in front of the rather unhappy waiting would-be penalty taker.
A neat little pass saw the home side go two up, threading the ball through for it to be dinked over the keeper from 10 yards to double the lead.
There looked no danger for the home side, and it had the feel of a game that would end 3-0 or 4-0. Yet Houston came out slack, and just a minute into the 2nd half, Columbus’ Wil Trapp was given far too much room outside the area, allowing him to line up a low 25 yard shot into the bottom corner. The game had changed before most fans had even returned from the hot dog queue.
Some were possibly still there when the comeback was complete eight minutes later. Again, poor marking, from much near to goal this time, allowed an unchallenged header from barely six yards out.
From there though, Columbus inexplicably stopped pushing. They did have yet another penalty decision reversed after initially being rewarded, but the more likely winner was the home side. It didn’t come though, and despite a good entertaining open game, the fans drifted off thinking about what might have been. At least there were enough bars about to aid getting over the disappointment.