If you ever dreamed of being a sportscaster it probably didn’t involve color commentary on semi-pro soccer with a two-camera operation streaming on a social media site from a steamy Division 3 press box in Northern New Jersey in July. But that’s what we have in this age of wage-free Internet writing that’s also morphed into free broadcasting as Fox Sports online writers can surely attest. Fox Sports announced the written word was done on its vast website last week. No more bylines other than “Fox Sports.” Twenty writers gone. Boom, boom, boom let’s go back to my chatroom.
So it was with great pleasure, humility, and gratitude that I boarded a Trailways bus last Saturday afternoon chartered by Kingston Stockade FC, the semipro entry in the National Premier Soccer League (the fourth tier in American soccer), as the team trekked to Madison, NJ to play its regional semifinal playoff game against a squad called Clarkstown SC Eagles. Stockade FC had won its first-ever playoff game at home the weekend before, beating Hartford City FC to become division champions and move on to the next round. I was with another volunteer fan who got me into the Facebook livestream broadcasts at the beginning of Kingston’s second full season in the NPSL back in May. Trailways is the kit sponsor for the team, and their terminal in Kingston is right across the avenue from Dietz Stadium, the home ground of Stockade FC which is in turn located in the “Stockade” historic district of Kingston. The team with the 18th-century stone house legacy has tech volunteers who are the envy of the league as almost every Stockade match is streamed live on Facebook.
I’ve wanted to live play-by-play or color since I was a kid, and I’ve logged so many hours in front of a TV or radio listening to baseball announcers that I can summon every cliché ever used by any AM radio microphone duo put together from the mid-Atlantic states to the Northeastern Elites territory. Tone. Pitch. Timbre. Pace. Momentum. Anecdotes. Dennis Miller-style pop culture references. Vin Scully-style anecdotes and pauses. The verisimilitude of Milo Hamilton’s crowd descriptions. It is all parroting at this point. Through the “exposure” of a team fanzine my daughter and I have produced since last season, I think they let me stick around the broadcast booth because the distracted tech guys weren’t too keen on “sports details.” I did two Kingston road broadcasts solo this season, one with my daughter operating the iPad camera from the nice pressbox at Central Connecticut State in New Britain, where Hartford City FC of plays its home matches. The most fun was in the rain in downtown Brooklyn, on the cramped LIU athletic field across from Junior’s. Old friends were in the house, and Kingston dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker to a club called Brooklyn Italians in stoppage time. The great thing about these livestreams is you can revisit them anytime and check your quality on goal calls or substitutions and any other obscure references that might have sneaked in. Soccer is a different animal than baseball in terms of calling a game. Fewer details and stats are needed. There’s more natural build-up as well-coifed players effort their way forward without helmets or other vulcanized encumbrances, rolling that stone up the hill one more time in an attempt to ripple the vast hanging netcord (what ESPN announcer Tommy Smyth refers to as “the old onion bag”) and celebrate like the opera divas they are.
It was nice of the team to let us netcasters tag along for the ride to Drew University’s turf pitch in Madison, squeezed in between the Mall at Short Hills and Fairleigh Dickinson University to the north.
Many of the unpaid players at the NPSL drive themselves to matches, so the team bus wasn’t crowded. Some paid support staff was there to make sure practice equipment was loaded and offer energy bars to the soccer personnel on hand. The bus had the leading scorer for Kingston this year, and last season’s leading scorer, so the cargo was somewhat precious. Chris, the Trailways driver, made record time in coach 61624 with its unused DVD screens blazing. Wi-Fi aboard meant everyone could quickly retreat into a digital shell with plenty of room to spread out over several seats.
The bus passed abandoned gas stations in Hurley looking chiaroscuro menacing under slate gray late afternoon skies. We passed a quiet Dietz Stadium which whispered encouragement to a team that has revived its WPA bleachers on hot summer nights. We passed the enormous Laibach-style American flags used by car dealers to mark the planet as their own as the New York State Thruway ribbons its way between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River southward to the Big Apple bobbing away. There’s a stop in New Paltz where more local players and staff board the bus. As we pull back onto the Thruway, a van in front of us is child-molester blank white, slowing down two lanes via driver indecision One bumper sticker reads: THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM. It looks homemade. Few others notice as we speed through the Modena, NY area. The assistant coaches on board are trying to suss out the 80-man roster of tonight’s opponent and one of the Stockade FC bench players near me appears to be studying some type of accounting workbook with painful charts and graphs with jagged Wall Street Journal-style graphics on each page. He’s soon asleep as we cross the border into New Jersey. Near the Ramapo rest stop, it’s apparent from our air-conditioned vehicle that it’s still damned hot out when a gaggle of Hells Angels is seen pulled over in the shade on the on-ramp. I look back to the rear of the coach and most of the players are seated in impossible yoga poses with their legs straight up and their feet above the headrest in front of them. I couldn’t do that without the help of several orthopedic surgeons.
As the bus passes a Wal-Mart 18-wheeler I think of Tracy Morgan when I see the sticker on the side of the cab that reads “Wal-Mart Transportation: 500,000 Safe Miles.” Traffic is unbelievably light as we scream through the I-80 interchange so I think the Kingston team might be blessed in that regard as we head toward a university famous for its theological program.
In fact, the team was so early on arrival at Drew University that the locker rooms were not open yet with nary a janitor in sight. No sign of the opponent. Kingston finished mid-table last season and did not make the playoffs. As mid-July arrived and with a rousing first-round playoff win, the team was flying high into this second round, with a trip to the regional finals in the balance and an automatic bid for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament next year.
After hitting Poor Herbie’s Pub in Madison for pre-game Harp lagers on draft, I was ready to call this one with my partner Steve Patch, who has great knowledge of the technical aspects of soccer. We’re a good fit, I think, if only they would turn up our microphones over the crowd noise created by some 240 visiting Kingston road supporters with drums, cowbells and in full voice. Oddly, they are louder on the road than they’ve ever been back in Kingston.
The game went by in the usual blur of adrenaline. There is tremendous pleasure in verbally enhancing the tidal rise and fall of a soccer match. Sometimes it’s hockey on Quaaludes. Calling a game requires multiple scrap paper rosters and number prompts. It’s fun to connect a pass correctly, or have a bit of background on a player who is taking his time with a throw-in. Kingston was up 2-1 at the half and the crowd was jacked. Steve and I had it down and were getting good feedback from the Facebook live comment stream. It was almost too good to be true. I interviewed wunderkind team owner Dennis Crowley at halftime, a media-savvy tech giant who has reaped tons of publicity via his Stockade marketing moves. He’s the most earnest sports franchise owner I’ve ever met, and his integrity is contagious. We tried not to jinx the second half, then the Clarkstown team came out full of Red Bull and outran their opponents and eventually took the game 6-3. Meanwhile, the Kingston crowd kept singing and drumming well beyond the final whistle, which had a Grinch-style effect on the “home team.”
Kingston was Whoville and the Clarkstown 11 were realizing that the soccer heart kept beating even after you stole their presents and eliminated them from the holiday playoffs. Stockade FC had taken over a road ground in the precious soccer territory of north Jersey, and they posed with the massive crowd for a well-publicized photo that struck awe in the 28 or so locals who turned out to support Clarkstown. Their home was supposed to be Rockland County, but the Eagles played all their home games in three different north Jersey locations as they plan to relocate to Morristown next year but a paperwork snafu cost them dearly this season. When Christopher Katona put Clarkstown up 5-2 late in the game, he mocked the Kingston fans and drummers in a courageous but fruitless strut in front of the lively visitors. The barnstorming Clarkstown team obviously longed for similar passion from their own supporters, and I told the Facebook viewers “This is what happens when you don’t have a home ground. You will always play in front of strangers.”
At that point the press box at Drew University was an absolute steam bath. There were a few stray cans of some IPA and a horrible glare off the glass from the fluorescents blaring above us in the booth. But we soldiered on until the final whistle when Kingston’s improbably fantastic sophomore season concluded. Things got emotional. Sad ending, but heads held high—that kind of thing.
On the way home, from the windows of the comfy Trailways coach and with the cameraman running out of Yuengling cans, the Morristown Mini dealer and Friendly’s restaurant further mocked us as we fled the Garden State for the glorious Hudson Valley. The players on the bus shook hands with everyone as they departed. The Brazilian guy with his Speed Racer looks was talking about a hot date on Tuesday, the team captain, who scored in stoppage time as a defenseman coming forward in the final seconds, was extremely sincere in his thanks as he stepped off at the New Paltz stop. He was captain last season, returned this season, and I hope he comes back as captain next season. But at this level, you never know who’s going to emerge or depart from year to year. Bruce Jeter, a Marist College player who made the Stockade squad for the summer, is reportedly a distant cousin of the old Yankee captain.
The players, fit as they are, were off to run marathons, do rail-trail bike runs and work on their six-pack abs. Patch and I, the Internet media sloths, were off to Rhinebeck for late beers and food. David Lindholm, the new coach of the Stockade this season, sought me out for a handshake in the parking lot. He had a refreshingly simple approach to the game. Lindholm was an assistant mentored by Bard College soccer coach Andy McCabe, a friend whom I met in those same Rhinebeck bars and eulogized on this website (“Requiem for a Soccer Coach”) in April of last year after his untimely passing. Andy would’ve enjoyed David’s run with this colorful squad, a team that rejoiced on the bus when they got social media word that Trailways had a fan bus sold out for this road game and they were gaining ground on us bound for the playoff game. Fifty-two souls: kids, parents, grandparents, bound for the bowels of New Jersey where they took over the joint and, despite the loss, showed them how it is done when it comes to supporting a team.