'The other football' thrives in Ann Arbor

James Coller/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published August 2, 2014

At exactly 3 p.m. — an hour before kickoff of the most-attended U.S. soccer game in history at Michigan Stadium — men’s soccer coach Chaka Daley starts walking. He’s at a tailgate with his family and friends in the parking lot outside Crisler Center, on the biggest soccer day in the history of this campus.

This is the kind of day soccer loyalists love: more than 100,000 fans packed inside the Big House to watch a sport that is often overlooked in favor of football or basketball, especially on this campus. It’s not a Michigan-run event, but it’s good for Michigan: Video boards outside the stadium advertised the Michigan men’s and women’s soccer teams’ upcoming schedules, and the first images on the screens inside the stadium on game day were videos promoting the Wolverine soccer teams.

“This is exciting, certainly for soccer in this country and ‘the other football,’ as they say,” Daley said. “We’re really excited about what this can do for not only the state of Michigan but certainly the University.”

Daley leaves his tailgate to head inside the stadium, and not 30 seconds pass before he’s stopped by a friend, a soccer coach at St. John’s. He shakes his hand, says a few words and casually tells the coach he should come to Ann Arbor sometime.

For Michigan soccer, this is a day worth showing off, and Daley and his team are happy to participate.

* * *

In planning the International Champions Cup, the first decisions were the dates and venues and clubs. Then the clubs had to be matched to the venues, and for Michigan Stadium — a host that could easily break the U.S. attendance record of 109,318 — the two biggest clubs in the world were a top choice.

“I think it’s an absolute home run,” Daley said. “To have this caliber of a game in Ann Arbor right after the World Cup, there’s not a much more high-profile match than maybe the two most storied clubs ever to play here at the Big House.”

A man driving by in a golf cart asks him if he wants a ride. Daley tells him he’s going to the west side of the stadium, up to the regents’ suite to meet some of the people who helped make the event happen.

He gets in the golf cart, but before long, the cart is stopped by hoards of fans entering the stadium. The driver tells him he might just be better off getting out and walking.

So Daley gets out and walks again, past fans who want to see the sport he came to Michigan to develop. The program is entering its 15th year, and Daley his third. The Wolverines have made the NCAA Tournament just four times. A soccer game in the U.S. between the two top clubs in the world helps put Ann Arbor on the map.

“I thought with two big teams, it could be this massive event,” Daley said. “It’s lived up to all its billing.”

* * *

Daley hands a ticket to the scanner at the gate and enters the biggest college-owned stadium in America. “Welcome to Michigan Stadium,” the event-staff employees say.

As massive games between European powers with 100,000 out-of-town fans go, this one was pretty smooth. The grass was installed earlier this week, just in time for the teams to hold open workouts Friday afternoon.

“It’s been pretty painless,” Daley said. “Fortunately, there’s very few places in this country that could accommodate this game as smoothly as the University of Michigan.”

Daley will watch part of the game from an upper-level box before heading down to his seats to enjoy the action with his family and some friends from the East coast. Chances to see Cristiano Ronaldo are scarce in the States, and the former Providence head man was happy to host the opportunity.

Meanwhile, with his team in town for the match, some players grilled in and enjoyed the atmosphere of a campus that has never looked quite like this. They went to the game, and some took in the open workout Friday.

“This game raises awareness for soccer, and hopefully that trickles down to us,” said fifth-year senior midfielder Tyler Arnone. “If people enjoy themselves at this game, maybe they look for, ‘Hey, where can I watch another soccer game? I really enjoyed it.’ We have a beautiful venue as well, so this event means everything for the men’s soccer program.”

Beside the popularity, the game will bring in some revenue for the Michigan soccer programs. As part of the facilities plan, the programs will be given office buildings by their stadium.

U-M Soccer Stadium will also feature a brand-new field this fall, the indication of a program on the rise. As Daley enters the Ross Tower to head upstairs and meet with people, he talks about his desire to follow the facilities upgrade with the program’s success.

He walks up the stairs and finally reaches the top of the stadium, not minding at all the chaos on campus. This was a spectacle, but Daley’s sport — “the other football,” as they call it — was right in the middle of it.