Miami FC finally earned local fans’ respect

Miami FC midfielder Michael Lahoud greets fans after the team’s win against Atlanta United FC of Major League Soccer in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup at Riccardo Silva Stadium on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.
Miami FC midfielder Michael Lahoud greets fans after the team’s win against Atlanta United FC of Major League Soccer in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup at Riccardo Silva Stadium on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.

It took a season and a half, a pair of wins over Major League Soccer teams, an electrifying game-winning goal by Kwadwo Poku and a berth in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals, but Miami has finally discovered its pro soccer team.

If the scene after Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over Atlanta United is any indication, this town is on the verge of a summer fling with its plucky second-division, first-class club.

Sure, there have been diehard Miami FC fans from the start, the soccer junkies who slapped that blue-and-orange magnet on their cars and showed up in team scarves back when the team was losing and drawing a couple thousand people at FIU’s Riccardo Silva Stadium. The most rabid of those fans formed a group called “The Dade Brigade” and took over the East end zone.

However, most of Miami’s soccer fans were a bit more skeptical of a team that plays in the North American Soccer League, a rung below MLS on the U.S. soccer pyramid.

Let’s face it, Miami soccer fans can be a bit snobby about their beloved sport. They like big names and famous teams, which is why they’re so excited about the idea of David Beckham bringing a team here and why many are willing to fork over more than $500 per ticket to see Barcelona play Real Madrid in El Clasico Miami at Hard Rock Stadium on July 29.

Many fans in South Florida would rather stay home and watch the English Premier League and La Liga on TV than go watch domestic soccer live — especially if that local team is perceived as second-rate.

But all it takes is one visit to a Miami FC match to realize this is no second-rate operation. Majority owner Riccardo Silva and part-owner Paolo Maldini, a former star on the Italian national team, are spending big bucks on their team. Silva made a $3.7 million donation to FIU for a new turf field, state-of-the-art scoreboard and other stadium renovations. The team’s stadium signage, merchandise store and fan experience are first-class.

Most importantly, with the help of coach Alessandro Nesta, the legendary Italian defender, they have assembled a team that plays attractive soccer and can not only compete with but beat MLS teams. They proved it with a 3-1 win over Orlando City and the last-minute victory over Atlanta. They scored six goals against their two MLS opponents, which is no easy feat.

If American soccer leagues believed in promotion and relegation, like other leagues around the world do, NASL leader Miami FC — on a 14-game unbeaten streak — would be looking at promotion to MLS next season. Alas, that won’t happen any time soon. But it’s fun to think about.

As the drums beat in one end zone Wednesday night and delirious fans jumped out of their seats and high-fived in the other, there was a sense that Miami FC had finally deemed itself worthy of Miami’s attention. More TV cameras than usual were on the sideline for that game, and chances are they’ll be back.

My husband, Dave, was one of those Miami FC converts among the crowd of 9,004.

He became a soccer lover after joining me at the 1998 World Cup in France. He watches EPL religiously on weekends and even watches games in Spanish. He accompanied me to every Miami Fusion game I covered from 1998 to 2001.

And we have spent the past 13 years watching our now 17-year-old daughter play soccer on just about every club and high school field in South Florida.

Dave arrived at Wednesday’s game in a green T-shirt. He left in a blue Miami FC shirt.

He sat in the Beer Garden section of the stadium with some other parents from our daughter’s soccer club. They had a blast.

“We’re coming back July 12 for the quarterfinals!” he declared when I saw him after the match.

Miami FC faces FC Cincinnati that night for a spot in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals — two second-division teams, coming off back-to-back upsets of MLS teams, both in markets vying for an MLS franchise.

Cincinnati’s story is as charming as Miami’s — maybe more. The second-year team plays in the United Soccer League and drew a crowd of 32,287 to the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium for its penalty-kick victory over the Chicago Fire of MLS on Wednesday.

It was the second-largest crowd in Open Cup history behind Seattle’s 35,615 for the 2011 final. The atmosphere and thrilling ending was a great advertisement for soccer in America.

Thanks to the University of Florida baseball team, which wrapped up the College World Series title in two games, ESPN had air time to fill and was there live for Cincy’s win.

Chicago’s starting lineup included German World Cup champion and former Bayern Munich star Bastian Schweinsteiger and Hungarian national team player Nemanja Nikolic, who leads the MLS in scoring this season.

But in the end, it was FC Cincinnati celebrating.

The Battle of the Underdogs — Miami FC vs. FC Cincinnati — is set for July 12 at FIU.

Will Miami fans show up?

Here’s betting they will.

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