My trip to the heart of rival territory…
The first week of March was exhausting. My high school soccer team had a regional playoff game on Monday night, which we won, propelling us into the state final four in Houston the following weekend. I spent the rest of the week leading up to our Thursday afternoon departure madly scrambling to arrange all the last-minute Houston trip details.
One of the main scheduling conundrums that needed solving was what to do with our 22-man team on Friday afternoon. With our semifinal game scheduled for 9:00 Friday morning, we had quite the time to kill afterward. I needed something fun and economical that wouldn’t completely sap their energy ahead of the state championship game on Saturday (assuming we won our semifinal of course).
I considered visiting the Johnson Space Center, but it is actually rather far from where we were staying in Houston. After scuttling NASA, my natural inclination was something Houston Dynamo-related – despite the fact they are the sworn enemy of FC Dallas. But what could we do?
I contacted the Dynamo’s Director of Soccer Operations, inquiring as politely as possible whether it would be possible for my team to attend a Dynamo training session if they had one Friday afternoon. I suppose this would be akin to a Liverpool fan wanting to visit a Manchester United training session. I did feel slightly traitor-ish since I’ve never arranged for my team to attend an FC Dallas training session, but these were unique circumstances, us making the final four in Houston and all. At least that’s how I soothed my fan conscience.
Surprisingly, I actually heard back from the Soccer Operations guy that the Dynamo would be training Thursday and Friday morning at 10:00 AM and that we were welcome to attend either session. My heart sank as my super cool (and cheap!) team outing would not be possible since we would be playing our semifinal Friday morning at 9:00.
The Dynamo training session bust led me to wonder if the club offered tours of their practically brand new BBVA Compass Stadium (it opened in 2012). I called the number and talked to account executive Ken who was very enthusiastic about the prospects of arranging a tour for my team. He got our request approved, called me back and just like that we were set for a 3:00 PM stadium tour on Friday.
I was excited. Not only am I endeavoring to be a more faithful MLS supporter, but I also want to spur impressionable young men to support it as well, thus doing my part to influence future generations of American soccer fans. Selfishly, I really wanted to find out if BBVA Compass Stadium is as cool as it looks on TV.
On the nearly five hour drive from our school in suburban Dallas to Houston, I tried to inspire the team with a screening of Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story which I had recently purchased expressly for this trip. While documentaries may not be everyone’s cup of tea (much less teenagers’) I thought this soccer-centric story would surely have widespread appeal. The film may be sluggish in parts, but who wouldn’t be roused, perhaps even get a lump in the throat, when Demerit scores the winning goal that gained Watford promotion to the Premier League in 2006? Well, apparently I am the only one so affected. Every time I glanced around at my players on the bus during the film, no one was remotely paying attention. Each was absorbed in his own digital devices and oversized headphones. My inspirational/motivational attempt became the running joke of our state trip as I was the only one interested in watching Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story (and I had already seen it).
Friday morning we dispatched Houston St. Thomas Episcopal 4-0 in our semifinal, advancing to Saturday’s state championship game against Houston Cypress Christian. Immediately following our game, the team shuttled over to another venue to watch our varsity girls’ team win their semifinal 1-0. From there, both teams traveled to a deli that was supposed to accommodate our huge troupe for lunch. After finally directing our charter bus driver (who mystifyingly did not have a GPS) to this very difficult-to-locate deli, we immediately discovered the deli had not been forthcoming on the phone about their ability to serve and seat our huge group (which included over forty players, plus coaches and several parents). This deli was in fact a lunch counter inside a high-rise office building. We had to find another restaurant capable of serving us in a timely manner, as it would have taken approximately 36 hours for everyone to eat had we stayed at the deli. The deli owner was furious and gave my assistant coach an earful, but we really had no choice but to head elsewhere.
By then I was severely stressed as I could see no way we would make it to the stadium on time for our tour. Strategizing at the alternative restaurant where we finally landed, I decided to call account executive Ken and see if there was any way to move our tour time to 4:00. Ken could not have been more laid back and accommodating. This in spite of the fact that the Dynamo brass had given Ken and the rest of the club’s staff the day off because of all the midnight oil they’d been burning in the weeks leading up to the MLS season opener. Ken told me to give him a call when we were on our way to the stadium, that he would be passing the time playing FIFA ’13 at a buddy’s apartment directly across the street from the stadium. Now I felt extra pressure – this guy was basically giving up his afternoon off to make this tour happen for us.
Houston traffic was the next hurdle on our BBVA Compass Stadium quest. We inched along for an hour on Southwest Freeway 59. I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the only traffic I’ve experienced worse than Houston’s. I had to call account executive Ken again to explain our lateness. He still seemed cucumber-cool, assuring me he had no problem playing FIFA while he waited. Ken’s FIFA fun wasn’t quite enough to assuage my stress over our lateness though.
Finally, at 4:45 PM we pulled alongside the stadium. The team universally proclaimed the structure’s coolness. I wholeheartedly concurred. My first thought was disdain at how much the exterior aesthetics of the Dynamo’s stadium trumped FC Dallas’. From the outside BBVA Compass Stadium looks like it was constructed by and for NASA, all silver and sleek and airy. From the outside, FC Dallas Stadium looks like part of a nice strip mall.
Ken met us outside the stadium, checked us in with security, and led us straight into the lower level inner ring tunnel. He explained straight away that we unfortunately wouldn’t be able to visit the Dynamo locker room, that not even he had ever been that far inside the inner sanctum. That roused my suspicions that ridiculously successful Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear has a vault of secrets in there.
Our first tour stop was the players’ tunnel leading to the pitch. Ken led us down the ramp to the edge of the pitch right behind one of the goals. We were allowed to step to the edge of the grass, but no further. The Dynamo are apparently extra finicky about their pitch. Ken said he’s only been on the pitch once, during last year’s staff Christmas party when they played an inter-office staff match. From field level the empty stadium is awesome – a truly soccer specific venue. I’ve never been in a stadium so large that feels so intimate. Though it seats 22,000, the seats on the top row feel remarkably close to the pitch.
Ken proudly moved us through various sections of the stadium – the south party deck available for corporate rentals, the premium season ticket holder sections featuring leather seats with hand-stitched Houston Dynamo monograms, and finally the President’s Club interior lounge overlooking midfield. Stunning.
The lateness of our arrival unfortunately meant limiting our tour to half an hour. Ken would have let us stay longer, but we had a dinner reservation to get to and considering the traffic, we wanted to eat before midnight. As Ken led us back out of the stadium, we passed the Dynamo team shop, which surprisingly wasn’t much larger than FC Dallas’ shoe box-sized shop. One of our team captains asked Ken, “Everyone gets a free jersey, right?” Ken assured him that not even he gets a free jersey as a Dynamo employee. I guess you have to pay for that awesome space-aged stadium somehow.
As I forked over the cash for our tour (the admission included a match ticket, but since none of us reside in Houston we opted to donate our tickets to a local charity) and thanked Ken for his helpfulness, he informed me he would be at FC Dallas with the rest of the Dynamo front office staff for the big FC Dallas v. Dynamo Derby match on Sunday, March 17. I said I’d look for him there. We shook hands, our eyes narrowing as our grip tightened and the rivalry vibes took over… in my mind at least. He hasn’t been to FC Dallas Stadium before and I felt like apologizing for our home ground relative to the Dynamo’s awesome environs, but caught myself. What would I apologize for? So what if the Dynamo have a sweet stadium? That doesn’t make me like their team any better. I hope Ken has as pleasant an experience at our stadium as we had at theirs – right up until game time at least. Then I hope it’s a sad, sad day for Dynamo fans.
On Saturday, after a fierce 0-0 first half, we finally breached the goal and never looked back, defeating Houston Cypress Christian 4-0 for our school’s first-ever varsity boys soccer state championship. It must have been that inspiring Dynamo stadium tour – either that or Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story.