JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – While attendance at the MLS exhibition on Wednesday night between Philadelphia and New York was down because of the weather, that's no indication of the passion for "the beautiful game" here in Jacksonville.
When the NASL had a team in North Florida in the early ‘80's it was relocated from Boston and kept the name ‘Tea Men' despite calling Jacksonville home. That's only because the Lipton Tea Company was the owner and ran the team from afar.
"We had no business being in places like Jacksonville, Atlanta and Tampa," one former NASL executive said recently in explaining why the league folded.
On the surface, he's right. As a professional sports league mostly fueled by ethnic followings in major cities, the NASL struggled to find a footing in places where American football as well as baseball, basketball and hockey were already established. To attract a crowd that wasn't in town to see the New York Cosmos, whole retinues of minor league style promotions were in play, drawing scant attention from most of the sporting public.
But here, the Tea Men had a following that understood the game.
The crowds in Jacksonville were decent, anywhere from 9 to 17-thousand rattling around the Gator Bowl. But they were passionate and knowledgeable, and they were there for every game.
A pair of English stars, Noel Cantwell and Dennis Viollet lead Jacksonville's NASL effort, bringing in a blend of American, European and South American players to compete.
It was a quaint, fun time with a big-time feel in a small-time town.
But it laid the groundwork for so many things to come, whether it was the USFL, the NFL or the Super Bowl.
It was part of a dream.
Billy Joel said at his concert last month that it was fun to be back in Jacksonville because the first time he was here "you could smell it coming before you got here." As the paper mills and the chemical plants disappeared and the quality of life improved, there were more and more queries about the viability of a real professional sports team calling Jacksonville home. Joel's comments dated him back at least 30 years.
Oh how things have changed.
There will be a NASL team in town next year, with the announcement of their name and logo expected Tuesday morning at the Landing.
More than 44,000 showed up for a "friendly" between Scotland and the US last year.
We're an events oriented town, and if a team with "USA" emblazoned across their chests is taking the field (or pitch in this case) we're going to show up.
Think back to the buzz around the Rugby League match between Leeds and South Sydney a few years ago. It became "the thing to do."
That's why one of the final friendlies before heading to Brazil for the World Cup for Team USA should be played here.
Yes our stadium field is too small for an official ‘qualifier." (A situation that can be remedied with about a $5 million investment for detachable seats in the four corners of the stadium floor) but if you want to send our boys off with a bang, let them depart from here.
An early summer game as the jumping off point for Brazil could mimic the weather in that part of South America and would create a buzz in town that would attract at least 50,000. Outside of Seattle, nobody attracts that kind of crowd.
Make it an event, bring in "our boys" and it'll be an incomparable evening.