Revolution Returns to MLS Cup in a New Era of U.S. Soccer Fandom

New England Revolution forward Charlie Davies holds the MLS Eastern Conference Champion's Cup as he celebrates with fans at Gillette Stadium last weekend.
New England Revolution forward Charlie Davies holds the MLS Eastern Conference Champion's Cup as he celebrates with fans at Gillette Stadium last weekend. –AP

The New England Revolution is still a clear No. 5 on the popularity power ranking of the region’s pro sports teams.

But the Revs will also become the only local pro team to play in a league championship game in 2014 (has it really been that long already, since Koji struck out Matt Carpenter?), when they take on U.S. soccer icon Landon Donovan and the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup final on Sunday at 3 p.m.

You know what that means: get the bandwagon ready.

Bandwagon fans or not, New England heads into its first MLS Cup since 2007 with a lot more attention on the team this time around. “Soccer’s come a long way in this country,’’ said Revolution (and New England Patriots) owner Bob Kraft—who has at times been a target of scorn for Revolution fans—following the Revs’ Eastern Conference Final victory against New York last weekend in Foxborough.

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Both Major League Soccer and the global game have seen significant growth in the United States over the last decade or so. That much was clear well ahead of the Revs’ run to the MLS Cup, and was demonstrated over the summer as the World Cup experienced record viewership stateside—with ratings in Boston proving particularly strong.

Despite that, as the league and the game grew along them, the Revolution in recent years seemed to be in a bit of a holding pattern. As has been discussed time and again (and again), the team still plays in a cavernous football stadium in the suburbs—which stands in stark contrast to the soccer-specific, urban stadiums that have sprouted across the league and that are deeply associated with growing a strong fan culture. The Revs were successful enough on the field last year, making the playoffs, but were lacking in star power. While attendance across the league touched new heights in recent years, topping 19,000 per game in 2014, the Revolution lagged behind.

But in late August, the Revs signed U.S. World Cup star Jermaine Jones. New England tore through the rest of its schedule, winning 11 of their final 14 games in the march to the title game. Midfielder Lee Nguyen began scoring at will, emerging as a league MVP candidate. And as the season moved toward the playoffs, the club was rewarded, as it drew more than 30,000 fans to its regular season finale in October. And its two home playoff games have generated the largest non-finals playoff crowds in team history, with the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals last weekend bringing in more than 30,000. For comparison, when the team last went to the MLS Cup in 2007, the home semifinal game only drew 10,300.

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Meanwhile, a popular Revs fan blog—The Bent Musket, which is part of Vox Media’s SB Nation—had its best traffic month in its four-year existence in November, according to editor Steve Stoehr, with a 66 percent month-over-month readership increase. And following the Revs’ victory over New York last Saturday, sports radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub talked Revs and Revs alone for a good two-plus hours.

That’s not to say the Revs are on the brink of challenging the other pro sports in town, or that winning a title would help in that regard. Even if it makes a noise, a tree falling in a forest will only be heard so far.

But the finals run appears to be turning some heads. Fran Harrington, the president of Revolution supporters group the Midnight Riders, said there have been a lot of fresh faces around Gillette Stadium during the Revs’ playoff run. He thinks there have been several factors generating interest around the team—from the broader growth of the game, to the success of the team on the field, to a weaker-than-usual fall sports landscape.

“It’s sort of a perfect storm to get people through the gate,’’ Harrington said.

The storm includes the winds of the World Cup. In the past, the globe’s biggest sporting event has not demonstrated much of an immediate rub on MLS’s popularity. However, it has served to get many fans into the game. (Harrington said that for him, it was the 2006 World Cup.)

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That may mean they buy the FIFA video game, or that they begin watching European soccer, where the quality of play is, objectively speaking, just way, way better than MLS. But at least following this year’s World Cup, if fans wanted to look local, they would have had a Revs team to turn to that, by the end of the summer, had taken form.

Stephan Rubin is a 28-year-old Brookline resident who falls into that camp. Rubin was a soccer detractor until June, teasing his “soccer maniac’’ girlfriend Sarah for her fandom. But he agreed to watch the World Cup with her this summer and was quickly hooked. He began watching international soccer with a roommate, but was also looking to follow the game locally. A friend of his is a die-hard Revolution fan, and he tagged along for a post-World Cup game. Since then, he and Sarah have been to both Revs home playoff games this year.

“I was adding it to the roster (of sports) I follow anyway,’’ he said. But the Revolution’s run of success, he said, has “made it easier to get into the soccer nut mentality.’’

Rubin grew up playing hockey and has Bruins season tickets. He remembers when the Bruins began climbing in local popularity in 2008, and especially when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and says it’s been interesting to take in both sides of the bandwagon experience.

“There’s a little bit of this feeling of, ‘Who are these people showing up now?’ But when new fans embrace a sport, it pays dividends for it,’’ he said. (Harrington said the supporters groups try to engage new fans who show up at tailgates, in an effort to keep them around.)

The recipe for a Rubin-like convert looks like this: already into local sports, interested in getting to know soccer, and close to people who can assist in that goal. A championship run for the home team probably helps. This fits MLS’s modus operandi for marketing the game, which Commissioner Don Garber has said focuses on growing inside out, starting with the core fanbase. Revolution President Brian Bilello has likewise touted the team’s goal of achieving organic growth.

There are, of course, other forms of bandwagon fans. General sports fans in the area may be looking to jump in on the fun of a local playoff run, regardless of the sport or the team. There are soccer fans who maybe watch the global game or grew up playing, and who have never cared much for MLS or the Revs but tuned in for the playoffs. And there are fans who aren’t new at all, but who casually follow the team and are jumping aboard again as the team finds success in a new decade.

Harrington theorized that the Revs have benefitted from the poor season from the Red Sox, who were out of contention by July and failed to hog the autumn spotlight. Meh showings from the Celtics and the Bruins may also be a factor.

And the Revolution’s playoff schedule has aligned well with the dominant sporting force of the country, as only one of four playoff games has been scheduled opposite the Patriots.

That good scheduling luck will extend this Sunday, as the Revs game in L.A. will be over hours before the Pats kick off in San Diego at 8:30 p.m.

Perhaps the best tell for how well the game and the team have really caught on this year, then, will be whether come Sunday afternoon the TVs at your local sports bar are tuned to the Revolution’s championship match—or the Celtics early-season tilt with the Wizards and whichever out-of-market NFL games CBS and FOX have to offer.

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