In January 1992, when I was 11 years old, I piled into my travel soccer coach’s conversion van with a bunch of teammates and set out from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to watch the U.S. National Team play the Commonwealth of Independent States (better known as the former Soviet Union) at the Pontiac Silverdome. I’ll be honest: I don’t recall many specifics of the game (though I recommend you watch the highlights) — who won or lost, who played for the U.S. What I do remember is this: My intense desire to be there. That’s the way things were back then, before the ’94 World Cup brought the world’s game to the United States, before the MLS: If you were a soccer fan in the United States, you did everything you could to see a professional game in person.
Twenty years later, things are different. Three World Cups — one men’s, two women’s — have come and gone in the U.S. We have MLS. But soccer fans in America still rarely get to see truly world-class performances in person. So when the opportunity does come around, people tend to flock to it like it’s 1992 again and we’re all starved for the game we love.
This happened last Thursday in Los Angeles. Real Madrid, visiting as part of the World Football Challenge, played the L.A. Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, where the staff set up an additional 5,000 bleacher seats to make room for what became a crowd of 30,317, the largest ever to attend a match at the stadium.
I saw the fans first in the parking lot: people of all ages and races, white families and Latino families, fathers and sons, guys and their girlfriends, two teenage girls in a Camaro convertible with their dads. Andrew Bynum was there. So was Rob Lowe.
It’s easy to view Real Madrid’s appearance in Los Angeles with cynicism. MLS established the World Football Challenge in 2009 to help foreign teams coordinate preseason exhibition matches against MLS teams — and in some cases, each other. Teams make big bucks by fielding their best players in front of Americans audiences in these matches, and they can spread their brands to the growing number of soccer fans here.
But being cynical isn’t as fun as accepting these matches for what they are: a chance to watch some of the best players in the world, live. And Madrid brought all their best players: Casillas, Ramos, Arbeloa, Pepe, Alonso, Kaka, Di Maria, Khedira, Ozil, and, of course, Ronaldo. Enough players to field two world-class teams (which, because there are no restrictions on subs in WFC, Madrid did).
Last season, this Madrid team scored a club-record 121 goals. On Thursday, they needed only a minute and a half to tally their first against the Galaxy. After a Galaxy turnover, they held the ball for an entire minute, first on the right side of the field, then the left, then they played it through midfield — Kaka to Diarra to Alonso — until Argentine forward Angel Di Maria picked up the ball at pace, running at Galaxy defender Bryan Gaul. He slowed, did a few step-overs, and the Galaxy defense slowed with him. When it did, forward Gonzalo Higuain burst behind his marker, David Junior Lopes. Di Maria slid Higuain a pass, and his countryman one-timed a shot past Galaxy goalie Josh Saunders. 1-0.
That single goal, struck so early in the game, set the tone, and Madrid never looked back. They assaulted the Galaxy defense. They played passes to each other between defenders, over defenders, into spaces on the field that didn’t seem to exist until they revealed them. Their attacking ability stood on a foundation of sound and seamless technical and tactical execution. On offense, they always had two or three players around the ball, and they played one-touch, two-touch, always keeping the ball — and the game — moving. Off the ball, players moved constantly, stretching out the field, finding passing angles between defenders, discovering open areas of space to run to.
The Galaxy should have proved a more formidable opponent. They’re the reigning MLS champions, and after struggling the first half of the season, they’ve started to hit their stride, led by their offensive trio of David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan. But on Thursday, Real Madrid proved how superior the world’s top clubs are to our domestic ones.
On television, you can see some elements of that superiority, the passing, the ball control. But in person, you can watch the entire game, watch how it opens up and moves on the field.
In person, you can see and hear the way Alonso controls midfield, constantly communicating and organizing the team. You feel Kaka’s pace and strength while he attacks the defense at speed with the ball at his feet. You see the beauty of Ozil running with the ball and the game moving around him. You can watch Pepe communicate with Ramos to hold their firm defensive line.
You also get to experience how the fans interact with the players. There was the usual smattering of Galaxy jerseys in the crowd, but there were almost as many wearing those familiar white Real Madrid jerseys with purple trim. And as the game went on and Madrid continued to perform well, most of the crowd began to cheer for them.
At one point in the first half, fans near the Real Madrid bench started cheering and screaming. I looked down on the field: There was Ronaldo, warming up just a few feet from them.
In the 54th minute, a Madrid player was fouled 35 yards from goal. Ozil and Ronaldo lined up for the free kick, and the crowd came to life. Cameras flashed throughout the stadium like stars in the night sky.
In the final minutes of the match, with the score 5-1 after a Ronaldo bicycle kick and another Madrid breakaway, the whole crowd stood and roared. They didn’t sit back down. When the final whistle blew, their cheering filled the stadium.
After the match, Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said, “You never could have put this game on 15 years ago.”