The NASL championship game included a pie-eating contest, a frenetic last half hour, and an old-fashioned pitch invasion
Text and Photograph by Phil West
[A]t halftime of Saturday’s North American Soccer League final at Toyota Field in San Antonio, the end-of-season awards were given to the league’s best goalkeeper (FC Edmonton’s John Smits), top scorer (Minnesota United’s Christian Ramirez), and overall best player — Miguel Ibarra, also of Minnesota, who wasn’t in attendance because he was with the U.S. men’s national team in London. It was a fitting, dignified way for the NASL to recognize its brightest stars. And then, just before the end of the break, came the Whoopie Pie-eating contest.
The contest was sponsored by the Corner Store, a convenience-store chain that also owns the naming rights, fittingly, to corner kicks at Scorpions matches. Three women emerged from the crowd. They would have one minute to eat as many Whoopie Pies as they could, for a cash prize and maybe some glory. Two of the women tied for first place by consuming just two Whoopie Pies each. Not exactly end-of-season-award material.
The game itself, featuring the San Antonio Scorpions and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers playing for a piece of silverware dubbed the Soccer Bowl, didn’t quite have the production value of a Super Bowl or even an MLS Cup final, but as matters developed, the crowd of nearly 8,000 at Toyota Field would be rewarded for sitting in the unseasonably cold and misty weather with a final half-hour of action that was as good as soccer gets.
Before kickoff, the more serious fans marched into the stadium from their tailgate, assembled behind the goal at one end of the stadium, hung up a banner declaring themselves “The Garrison,” and chanted, drummed, and tooted their horns for the rest of the match, at one point breaking into a surprisingly proficient rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
But the noise didn’t quite infect the rest of the stadium. From my position near the other goal, the most boisterous people in the stadium were actually a group of eight visiting Strikers fans with an impressive catalog of chants to choose from. The Scorpions PA announcer tried to help by bellowing “Here come the Scorpions!” during random moments of midfield possession, but that only prompted dutiful bursts of cheering, to contrast with the crowd’s default mode, which ranged from “polite engagement” to “engrossed in popcorn consumption.”
The atmosphere changed from its tight, scoreless composition in the 64th minute. On a Strikers’ corner kick in front of the Garrison, the referee pointed to the spot for contact in the box. The Strikers’ Martin Nuñez stepped up, pinging it off the crossbar and out of play. Five minutes later, Scorpions midfielder Rafael Castillo ran into the penalty area and met a cross from the left side with a bicycle kick. His shot wrong-footed the keeper, bounced at the base of the left post, and made a wide, uncertain loop across the entire width of the goal before fluffing the net. Scorpions 1, Strikers 0. Cue the fandemonium.
Both teams fed off a newfound urgency and the game opened up. In the 74th minute, Castillo finessed a through-ball to teammate Billy Forbes, who charged into the box and notched an insurance goal. The Strikers pulled one back in the 79th minute, when Walter Ramirez’s shot blasted into the top netting.
At the final whistle, a few fans braved a fairly lackluster squad of security officials to join the players on the field, and within minutes, we were treated to a full-blown pitch invasion. Several hundred people joined the party down on the field, the PA announcer’s entreaties of “Fans, stay off the center of the field,” completely ignored.
One of those fans, James Morgan, would later tweet a selfie of himself in front of the crowd. “My first pitch invasion and I wasn’t arrested,” he captioned the shot. “Honestly, I was just following my ride.”
Phil West is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas, and tweets under @philwest.