This past Sunday night I did something I haven’t done in long while: I went to a mass audience event. The last one I went to was a metal concert in Dallas about a month before the plague and politicians shut everything down. I had no idea then that that great Stryper show at the Gas Monkey Live was the last big crowd event I’d go to for more than a year.
Specifically, this past Sunday I went to see Austin FC in home green take on FC Dallas in red at the new Q2 Stadium in north Austin. It was supposed to be a Major League Soccer battle for Texas, and it was until Dallas scored three quick-fire goals about two-thirds of the way through the first half to take a 4-1 lead into the break.
A word about the stadium: It’s spectacular. I’ve been to lots of events in several stadiums including a baseball game in Japan (Ichiro Suzuki played that day and was a beast). I’ve been to FC Dallas’ home stadium and saw Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy rip a hat trick against the home team. Wrigley Field is easily the most authentically historic ballpark I’ve seen a game in. It was a long time ago, Harry Carey was still singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and it was a magical setting. But if had to name a favorite anywhere it’s probably Baltimore’s Camden Yards. That stadium led the retro brick revolution and the downtown stadium trend when it was opened back in 1992. The architects incorporated existing warehouses into the outfield, creating a standing room and food section that stadiums have been emulating ever since. It’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. It didn’t hurt that I had a friend pitching for the O’s for several of the seasons we lived in Charm City, so we could go out to the bullpen and talk about whatever if the game got a little slow. We did that so often the late great Elrod Hendricks, who was the bullpen coach at the time, started recognizing us, me and my then-toddler son. We’d walk up to the fence and I’d say “Excuse me, Coach Hendricks, can you see if Buddy is free for a minute?” Coach would bark “Buddy! Your friends are here!” and out would come my church and school friend who’d made it to the big leagues, left-handed middle reliever specialist Buddy Groom. After a few times, Hendricks might see us come and get Buddy’s attention before we were even at the fence.
Austin’s Q2 Stadium isn’t part of the brick trend at all. It went for an ultramodern look. You’d expect no less from a brand new stadium in high-tech Austin that’s built for the city’s only major professional sports team. It looks like a sleek spaceship landed there on the corner of Braker and Burnet. The pitch is perfect and the whole stadium is wired with technology. And it has an avenue between the upper and lower decks that’s wall to wall with local food favorites from Plucker’s to One Taco to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. It’s worth going to games there just for the food if I’m being honest. It took that part of Camden Yards and updated it. The food venues literally go all the way around the middle deck, plus there are beer halls and clubs in the upper deck.
I was curious how the National Anthem would be handled with so much going on, especially the shocking loss of 13 American servicemen and women in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday.
Austin is a music city, so a live folksy duo came out with a guitar and sang a beautiful, modest, heartful rendition of the anthem. There were no self-aggrandizing vocal pyrotechnics. The flag was everywhere, up on the huge digital screen on one end and all along the pitchside advertising screens. It was bright and beautiful.
I watched the players for both Austin and Dallas out of the corner of my eye and was surprised and happy to see none were kneeling. Most of the players on both teams are not from the United States. Many are from Central and South America. None of them knelt and most of them had their hands over their hearts.
At the lines “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” fireworks blasted from black boxes on the pitch up into the dusky sky. It was a welcome, fiery surprise. When the anthem was over the stadium erupted in cheers.
No one was protesting the anthem Sunday night in Austin. I don’t know if that’s the Major League Soccer policy for the season or if the teams just decided that now wasn’t the time to inflict further division on our country. Either way, I was grateful.
Dallas went on to win 5-3 but Austin never quit. Goalkeeper Matt Stuver brought AFC to life by throwing one of the Dallas strikers to the ground when he was trying to waste time with Dallas up 5-1. It was a fun game to watch with my son, in a beautiful new venue with a fantastic atmosphere that Austin can be proud of. The Verdes’ fans made it feel like Austin FC has been playing there for years, but this is the club’s first season.
I beat up on Austin a lot, mainly its daft mayor who seems intent on wrecking the city. But Austin FC and its fans are a different story. After a terrible couple of weeks capped by the tragedy in Kabul, a little heartfelt patriotism seemed to be on everyone’s minds. The Verde and its fans delivered.