Football--of a Sort--Returns and Rates a Big 'A' in Anaheim

It was great to see football back at Anaheim Stadium Wednesday night.

There were lots of punts and players who couldn't use their hands, just like when the Rams' offense played here, and many missed tackles and long recovery runs, just like when the Rams' defense played here, and very few points on the scoreboard, just like when T.J. Rubley and Chris Miller quarterbacked here.

Even the crowd count was uncannily Ramlike--27,125--although, to be fair, it was not quite an exact replica.

This crowd seemed to be having fun.

And how about this for a halftime show--vibrant reggae music wafting over the stadium sound system, Bob Marley setting the mood by inviting the fans to "let's get together and feel all right."

This is what happens when Trinidad and Tobago rolls into town instead of Tampa Bay, playing what the rest of the world calls "football" and we call "soccer," a spectacle that hadn't been seen at Anaheim Stadium in 15 years.

Soccer, or at least some interpretation of it, was last played at the Big A by the California Surf of the North American Soccer League in 1981. The Surf is memorable only because of its peculiar name, and its more peculiar style of play, and when it faded from view, so did the sport it allegedly represented.

It took a decade-and-a-half and an international tournament in need of a third Southern California site to bring it back, and if this is the future of our NFL-free environment, well, let's get on with it, shall we?

The first two matches of the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup were played at Anaheim Stadium Wednesday night and both, as the English say, were real crackers.

Canada, playing without its top goal scorer and four other starters, netted two goals in the first 20 minutes to upset Honduras, 3-1, in the opener before El Salvador blew a 2-0 lead and scraped past Trinidad and Tobago on a late penalty kick, 3-2.

It was up-and-down, wide-open, off-the-crossbar soccer--purportedly the only style that has a chance with the mainstream American sports fan, so, Major League Soccer, take note. Give the people a few goals, a was-it-in, was-it-out controversy, a bicycle kick or two and, who knows, it could catch on.

Anaheim had been out of the soccer business for so long that it literally had to build a field from scratch. New sod was laid down around Christmas and peppered with enough rye seed to grow a near seamless pitch--70-by-115 yards of what looked to be plush green velvet. Goal standards, at $2,000 apiece, and corner flags also had to be purchased, since the Surf took all its equipment and went home a long time ago.

According to Mike Meyers, the stadium's event coordinator, the plan is to keep those goal posts in storage once the Gold Cup is finished.

"We hope to do soccer on a regular basis," Meyers said. "It's starting to be a popular sport in this area. We hope to have international 'friendlies' here, maybe three of them after this tournament, and hold the Gold Cup here every two years, depending on what happens with this tournament."

First impressions were promising, considering the number of spectators in the stands and not invading the pitch.

"A real acceptable crowd," Meyers said, meaning its size. "Twenty thousand is what we were looking for, and we got close to 30,000.

"There were a lot of problems with tickets early on. Because of all the [foreign players'] visa problems due to the government shutdown, we weren't sure there were going to be any games here at all. It wasn't until Saturday that the government went on-line again and the visas could be processed. Considering all that, the crowd was very good. We had quite a large walk-up tonight."

Craig Forrest, the Canadian goalkeeper, was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and the accoutrements Wednesday night.

"Frankly, we didn't expect much," Forrest said. "The field, we really weren't sure what to expect. Would there be half a baseball diamond on it? We didn't know how many fans would be interested.

"But it was obvious they're taking this tournament seriously. The crowd was great, much larger than what we had for the last Gold Cup [in 1993]."

Forrest, who earns his paycheck playing for Ipswich Town of the English First Division, was particularly impressed with the field.

"Remember, I just came over from England, where it's minus-seven degrees," he said with a smile. "Playing on this? It was a pleasure."

The same could be said by the dancing, cheering flag-wavers in the stands.

Anaheim, you really ought to do this more often.

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