CARSON, Calif. — A sea of red jerseys gathered in Lot 11 outside Dignity Health Sports Park. From the kegs of German beer to the lederhosen, the scene was part soccer tailgate, part Oktoberfest. The members of the San Diego and Los Angeles Bayern Munich Official Supporters Club marched toward the stadium and chanted.
“Super Bayern! Super Bayern! Hey! Hey!”
When the 12 of the world’s best soccer teams come to the United States from mid-July to early August, fans flock to stadiums around the country. The International Champions Cup has drawn more than 100,000 to Michigan Stadium three times in the last five years. Wednesday’s match between Bayern Munich and Arsenal was no different.
The 26,704 fans that nearly filled the regular home of the LA Galaxy — an MLS team the fans here this night don’t generally watch — are obsessed with European soccer. But without geographical ties, how’d they pick a team? Sometimes, it’s as simple as hopping on the bandwagon.
“I like how it sounds in an English accent,” Eddie Rodriguez said of his favorite club, Arsenal. “I like cannons. They have great players and great history.”
Angie Castille, meanwhile, waited outside the stadium wrapped in a Bayern Munich flag. Wednesday night was the first of three Bayern games for Castille in the next week; she’ll also see her squad play Real Madrid in Houston and AC Milan in Kansas City. She’s from Houston, where she has season tickets for the Dynamo, but also travels to Germany twice a year for Bayern games and is a partial owner. (German clubs are required by the Bundesliga to retain majority ownership by members’ associations to protect against external investors.)
She traces her love for Bayern Munich back to the PBS series, “Soccer Made in Germany.” The program, which ran from 1976 until 1988, featured a weekly collection of highlights from West Germany soccer clubs. She remembers watching Franz Beckenbauer, a star defender for West Germany, and following his career when he joined the New York Cosmos.
“That’s who I grew up watching,” she said of how he chose Bayern Munich.
That’s how Zach Keeley found his team in the early 2000s. He flipped on the TV for an Arsenal-Newcastle game and fell in love with the Gunners, respecting their stature in the English Premier League, which he considers the world’s best soccer league.
“I’ve watched every game since I was 7,” Keeley said, after lifting up his shirt to flaunt the Arsenal crest tattooed over his heart.
But for most people, choosing a favorite European soccer team isn’t much different from the decision-making process for the fourth graders clad in Stephen Curry gear from Under Armour sneaker to hats which read “The City.” For the majority of the people outside Wednesday’s match, their fandom didn’t start with a team, it starts with a player, and sometimes family ties.
Eric Estrada’s family has Mexican roots, so he followed star defender Rafa Marquez at FC Barcelona. Marquez left the club in 2010, but by then Lionel Messi had emerged as a megastar and the rest was history for Estrada. David Ngyuen was 7 when his dad had him record the 1998 World Cup, in which Thierry Henry led France with three goals in the tournament. From then on, Ngyuen’s pledged himself to the Gunners.
“I’m waking up at 4:30 for them,” he said, smiling at the notion. “For God knows why.”
Joseph James wasn’t a soccer fan in 2002. But watching the World Cup he saw Oliver Kahn in goal for Germany. His wife’s from Frankfurt, and with an extra push from her family, he wound up at a Bayern Munich game to watch Kahn.
Since then, he’s dropped baseball and American football, exclusively watching Bundesliga soccer. But with his in-laws from Frankfurt, trips to Germany are in Eintracht Frankfurt football club territory.
“You don’t understand,” James said. “Being a Bayern fan coming to Frankfurt ... it’s harsh.”
The Viger family can’t agree on a team either. Les Viger’s father was in the Air Force, which landed his family in West Germany in the 1970s. A few hours from Munich, he watched Beckenbauer and the world champion West Germany squad. But Connor, Les’ son, never spent time in Germany and prefers Liverpool. He admired the game of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
The Vigers and nearly everyone outside the stadium do agree on one thing, though: European soccer takes priority because it’s a better product than MLS, which is still in relative infancy. From on-field quality of players to the coverage of the teams, it’s just more entertaining.
“I find it kind of boring,” Rodriguez said. “There’s not as much gossip, or player information. The Premier League and the big leagues in Europe seem to be really good at marketing just all the stuff about them.”
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