Behind enemy lines during a pandemic

The list of peculiar experiences during the pandemic continues to grow.

I’ve never liked being “behind enemy lines”, so to speak. But there I was Saturday night, along with at least four other Nashville fans, in Exploria Stadium in Orlando for the final game of Nashville’s somewhat magical but culturally troubled inaugural season.

Some of you are reading that and thinking, “Oh, you lucky bastard! What an incredible experience that must have been.” You would be wrong, at least for me, anyway.

First off, sure, I was fortunate to have needed to be in Orlando the very week of Nashville’s final game. That wasn’t on purpose; I had planned this trip quite a while ago for a variety of reasons.  But when the final portion of MLS’s season was announced, it felt like karma. 

As I’ve said before in this column, I was forced through circumstance to miss the match I most wanted to see—the huge crowd for the very first home game as an MLS franchise—so it seemed fitting that I would get to see the last game of the season. Nonetheless, it’s not a tradeoff I would have taken. Given a choice, I would have been at our first game, even knowing how both games turned out.

Secondly, and I cringe to say this, but my flight out of Orlando was timed such that I had to leave the stadium with about 15 minutes left in the match. I missed the entire freaking magical part of the game. It’s things like this that make me feel doomed in life. I have the good karma to be at this game, and the crappy karma to have to leave right before the fireworks went off.

Third, I actually never like being at an away game in any sport UNLESS I’m sitting in designated “away fans” area of a stadium (that can be a party). Sitting amongst the home crowd while cheering for the away team is never a very comfortable experience. Maybe I learned too much civility in Catholic school for my first six years of education, but I always feel rude cheering for my team in such a crowd, and I feel positively muted when my team scores. While I admit to having made some noise on our first equalizer, and I even tried to get a few “woooos” going, for the most part, I sat quietly, making myself smaller and smaller all the time. The better my team does, the more uncomfortable I feel cheering for them. It’s a weird thing. 

Had I been there when we inexplicably drew even, then went ahead, I’m certain I would have been very quiet in my celebrations, given that I was sitting with my friends, three die hard Orlando fans. 

I talked to Axton Bryant, a Nashville fan who lives in Tampa and was at his first NSC game, bringing his new wife along, about his experience. Axton was sitting right near me at the game, so I agreed to celebrate with him when we scored. Indeed, we yelled and pointed at each other after that first score, but even then… I dunno… with so few people there, and all of them Orlando fans, it was easy to feel as if I was making a spectacle of myself. Axton told me that he felt much of the same discomfort especially as he made his way toward the stadium wearing what he called his “highlighter yellow jerseys.” (C’mon, you boys in highlighter!). But while he shared my level of discomfort, I got the sense that he’s able to let it go much easier than am I. That said, Bryant had mixed feelings about his moments of celebration: “I felt like such a jerk for cheering against the team that all of these people paid to see win, but it did feel good to rub it into my friends face.”  (Doesn’t sound like he felt like that much of a jerk, does it?)

I like this ability to feel guilt and go nuts anyway. As he explained, “When Mukhtar scored the late equality, I went absolutely ballistic and very much embarrassed my wife!” And when Cadiz scored the winner, he said, “The entire stadium went silent except for my screams and cheers!” And while Bryant felt uncomfortable with the dirty looks he got during the walk back to the car, he felt ecstatic inside.

Me? I was halfway angry that I had to watch the end of the game play on my phone in a Lyft on the way to the airport and halfway happy that I didn’t feel the need to offer consolation to my friends who were pulling for Orlando City.

I want full stadiums back. I want to be able to travel to see this team everywhere. But, honestly, I want to travel with a large contingent of you guys. There is comfort in numbers. There is comfort in family.

I’ve had quite enough COVID-driven experiences, thank you.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Broadway Sports Media as a whole.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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