The Full 90

My Life in the Cauldron, revisited

Originally published in Ink magazine in 2008, this is the story of how I came to follow and love soccer in Kansas City and overcome my Euro snobbery. It was the result of a two-month journey wherein I embedded myself in the Cauldron -- at the time a collection of die-hards gathered along the third-base line at a minor-league baseball stadium -- as the Kansas City Wizards were making an unlikely playoff run.I reckon there are fans who either weren't around in 2008 when this ran or didn't see it at the time. Fair warning: There are dated references in this one and a few weak sentences that I wouldn't dream of writing now. I've added notes where applicable, but have kept the story untouched.

The Kansas City Wizards are in the midst of a playoff run. One win separates them from a playoff spot in Major League Soccer. On the season, they have eight wins, 10 losses and nine ties. Not a remarkable record, but seven of their wins have come at home, where they are cheered on by the most raucous and welcoming section of devoted fans in Kansas City: The Cauldron. Where every game is like a Kings of Leon concert ...

Sept. 13, Arrowhead

On a sloppy, wet Saturday afternoon, a strange man with impossibly strong forearms hugged me.Hard.The way brothers hug.The way game-show contestants hug the host after winning a million bucks.** I know now that this was Hector from La Barra KC.Only we weren't hugging because David Beckham signed an autograph. We were hugging because Davy Arnaud is a freaking wizard. (He's also, technically, an actual Wizard.)About that hug. It was shrouded by swirling clouds of confetti and smoke, my official initiation into the Cauldron, a group of frenzied supporters of the Kansas City Wizards. The Wizards had just scored their second goal of the game, a giant mountain for the Galaxy to climb in soccer terms.Someone chucked a smoke bomb into the Cauldron underneath my feet, forcing me to cover my face with my shirt. Behind me a guy with a crazed look in his eye beat a snare drum like it owed him money.At an American football game you sing and dance and cheer. You're loud. You're rowdy. But you get many, many opportunities to celebrate a score. Especially at a Missouri game.But in soccer, you get to celebrate only once or twice — and that's only if you're lucky.Celebration isn't a strong enough word to describe what followed Arnaud's magical goal. Delirium is.Let's backtrack a little. I don't particularly like Major League Soccer.I'm a soccer fan, yes, but it wasn't supposed to be like this. I'm a snob.I live and die British football. The kind played in front of thousands of screaming fans. The kind that isn't played on a pitch that doubles as a baseball stadium.So I never planned to fall in love with an American soccer team. Much less the Wizards.If you go to Plaza III, you expect prime rib, not a frozen Steak-Ummm.But I went to my first Wizards game on a lark. Free tickets to a game between a team from Kansas City and a team for Salt Lake City.Yawn.It was late June. It was hot. Humid. And it was boring. Though the Wizards did win, 1-0 —- the first of a seven-game unbeaten streak at home at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, where they share the pitch with the Kansas City T-Bones. The stadium is basically in a Target parking lot in Kansas City, Kan.But something weird happened to me at some point in the second half. I stopped paying attention to the game — which wasn't hard — and started to marvel at the section across the way. The frenetic crowd of singing and dancing fans.A siren's song.Journey to the center of the frenzy"I fell in love with football as I would later fall in love with women: suddenly, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain it would bring."

Soccer fans have a common language: Frustration. It's literally everywhere on the pitch.It's why they bunch together. Why they form groups like the Cauldron. To share their mutual frustration.There's nothing they can do but beg, in song, for a goal. Just one goal. One freaking goal is all we need.It's this frustration, though, that creates a group like the Cauldron. The section formed — and there are several versions of this story — in 2001 or 2002, when the Wizards still called Arrowhead home. It started as a loose coalition of groups, some that were only a few people strong and some (the Mystics, for example) that had been around since the inaugural Wizards season in 1996.They came together out of a combined passion: rooting for the Wizards. Celebrating the victories. Commiserating the losses.Being a Kansas City transplant, I don't get many opportunities to have a shared sports experience. I don't like the Chiefs. I hate baseball. And since I'm not going anywhere soon, why not try the Wizards?The first game for this project was Aug. 23. Kansas City was taking on FC Dallas.And, like being the goofy kid going stag to the prom, going into the Cauldron was a little intimidating.Aug. 23, CommunityAmerica Ballpark

Getting into the Cauldron is simple. When you order a ticket, you just ask them for a Cauldron ticket. It's $20. Not a lot to pay for a 90 minute game.**** It's pretty amazing that not much has changed at Livestrong. You can still get a Members' Stand ticket for about $20.And, for my first game, I suffered a mild case of anxiety.The Cauldron has no assigned seating. So, it's almost like first-come, first-served. I arrived early but didn't have the balls to sit in the middle. I sat in the back. Waiting.As the fans started to file in, I felt like I was in high school again.I didn't have the right shirt on (just a blue shirt turned inside-out). I didn't have a snazzy scarf, which all of them seemed to have. I didn't know the chants. And I didn't know what to expect.I went to the front row — after gentle prodding from my wife — to talk to the supporters.Turns out, they were pretty approachable. They didn't mind someone who wasn't a member there. It didn't matter that I didn't have the right color shirt. Didn't matter that I was clueless about what to sing.They cared only that I was there.The more people, the louder it gets.Before the teams even took the field, a guy wearing aviator shades stood up and started screaming.I would see him at several games later. ? Always in the same spot: the middle of it all.Ben Cunningham is a 28-year-old from Lee's Summit who's been in the Cauldron since 2000. And he tends to be, for better or worse, the "cheer" leader."You don't have to be a 'member.'*** If you don't want to hear the occasional curse word our section isn't for you. Wear blue. And sing as long and loud as your lungs will let you," he said.***: HA!He was doing his best on this August night, pumping his fist while cupping his hands and shouting."Everywhere we go "And the section, about 200 or so at this point, all called back: "Everywhere we go "Ah. Call and response. I can handle this.The cheering got more complex once the Argentinians showed up, lured to the games by Wizards player and fellow Argentine Claudio Lopez.They brought drums. They brought passion.They brought a ton of Spanish chants that, quite frankly, I don't understand. Nor do I think we can print.After the game started, things weren't going so well.I stood in the back of the section just trying not to get in the way, already kinda wishing that I'd taken a seat closer to the action.The team — and this should be no surprise to Kansas City fans — was sorta sucking, down 1-0 to Dallas and fading fast.But the Cauldron kept imploring them to score. Near the front row, a large white stand-up drum was mercilessly pummeled. The chanting continued.Didn't seem to matter. Dallas kept KC off the board for an hour and a half.Didn't bother the few dozen Argentinians. They danced in the aisles, their energy infecting those around them.A soccer game is 90 minutes — two 45 minute halves. There are no timeouts or commercials. That's a long time to cheer.Robert Houghton, president of the Cauldron and easily identifiable in his 00 jersey with his name of the back, told me before the game: If we start to run out of steam, it's the Argies that keep us going.The referee adds a few minutes to the end of the game to account for stoppages like injuries or substitutions. This is referred to as stoppage time. And, at the end of a game, Europeans call it "the death."If you don't score here, and the ref calls the game, you're going home defeated.But the Argies and the Cauldron weren't dead yet.Jimmy Conrad found some space in a mad scramble off a corner kick. His forehead smashed the ball into the back netting of the goal.At the death. Just feet from the Cauldron.Ninety minutes of frustration absolved under a pile of confetti that would make Enron executives envious.In its place, ecstasy. Even for a freaking tie.I was hooked.Line and sinker.Sept. 13. Arrowhead

For my second game, I ventured farther in the Cauldron, dragging my wife into the heart of the beast. We found a spot behind the large drum. Amidst the dancing Argentinians. Right behind the chant ringleaders and already intoxicated revelers.It was as if we'd always been there. I remembered a few chants from the last game and felt I was ready. David Beckham was the only enticement my wife needed to have a good a time.This was a back-and-forth game. Again, there was a ton of frustration. Scoring in soccer is like scoring if you're a nerd the homecoming dance — it might happen, and when it does, it kinda catches everyone by surprise.That was the case here. It was a full hour before Wizard forward Josh Wolff flicked in the game's first goal.That set off the smoke bomb. The pounding snare drum. The entire section — which at Arrowhead felt like 1,000 people — started chanting "Ole, ole, ole!"When Davy Arnaud scored a minute or two later, we could barely contain ourselves.Which led to my new friend trying to lift me over his shoulders.I turned to my wife — not a sports fan — and she was jumping like a banshee on a pogo stick. Laughing at me and my hugging friend and celebrating along as the fans serenaded their heroes with a song.We were caught up in the joy, experiencing something that is among the rarest of the rare in the sports world: a soccer goal.A beautiful goal. It was struck from 35 yards out and the Galaxy goalkeeper didn't have a chance.It was the kind of goal that British journalists spend days gushing over.The kind of goal that can persuade smug soccer snobs to give in and enjoy it with gusto. To learn to love it — even its faults.I knew before the game was over that I wasn't just going to ride the ride the next time.I was going to be a part of it.Sept. 20. CommunityAmerican Ballpark

On my third journey into the Cauldron, I was ready.I spent a few hours before this game at studying the chants. Research. Learning everything I could about the various songs, the timing of the chants. I even brushed up on my Spanish.I hit the tailgate before the game — a must. Look for the RV in the northwest corner of the park.********Don't look for this anymore. There's now a tent in Lot F.When the time came to pick my seat, I mustered the courage to sit in the front, the closest I've ever sat at a sporting event.This time I wore a blue shirt. A blue Cauldron shirt. (I picked that up when I bought my tickets, a nice bonus from talking to a former Cauldronite who worked in the ticket office.)Chanting. Clapping.Breathless and gasping. Living and dying on each pass.Frustrated and waiting.Close enough to taunt Greg Sutton, the Toronto goalkeeper. Close enough for him to hear me say, "‘Hey Sutton, your mom says hi!'"And then it happened. Sutton made a critical blunder: He tackled a Wizard in the box. The ref blew a whistle and sent the Cauldron into a frenzy when he pointed to the penalty spot.When Wizard midfielder Jack Jewsbury lined up for the kick, we got quiet.But, like a good Pixies song, it got loud again when Jewsbury buried the shot.The delirium thing. It happened again.Dancing, singing, showering our lads with our undying adoration for satiating our goal lust.When Kevin Souter sealed the deal with his first-ever goal as a Wizard — a cheeky move about 10 minutes later that the goalie couldn't dream of saving — it did more than just push the Wizards into the playoff picture.It made me realize what I should've seen coming: Why sit on my hands in a normal section to watch a soccer game when I could sing and chant and dance and share in celebration (and maybe a little frustration) with a few hundred kindred spirits?