Tailgaters get caught up in marquee soccer match at Heinz Field


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Jason Steubden is not a casual sports fan.

Among the 500 or so team jerseys he owns, perhaps 230 are football, he said. But about 30 are for futbol. Little wonder, then,he was tailgating in the Heinz Field parking lot before Sunday afternoon’s soccer match between renowned foreign professional teams Manchester City of England and AC Milan of Italy.

Like so many of the 34,347 fans in attendance for Manchester City’s 5-1 victory in a Guinness International Champions Cup group match, Mr. Steubden, of Pittsburgh, became a soccer fan through his kids’ involvement. Although at heart, he added that “I’m a baseball dad. My sons play soccer, but I’m a baseball guy.

“I like watching soccer, too. [Argentine World Cup star Lionel] Messi is my sons’ favorite player.”

 

Connor Mulvaney/Post-Gazette
Fans cheer a goal by Manchester City in the Guinness International Champions Cup match Sunday between AC Milan and Manchester City at Heinz Field.

 

Same universe, different worlds: Among the other tailgaters was Ryan Bopp, who admitted he cannot name one player among the Manchester City Blues roster, but got caught up in his friends’ fervor for the sport. A middle school soccer coach in the South Hills, he called himself “technically a bandwagon” fan, but was OK with wearing the club’s sky blue jersey.

Mr. Bopp’s girlfriend, Jordan Brody, also scored points for honesty. She said she was there among the bean-bag tossing, chicken-cooking, beer pong-playing crowd simply because “I like tailgating.”

 

Western Pennsylvanians, many of whom brought their soccer ball-kicking kids to the party, appeared to make up the majority of those filling the tailgate lot. But cars with out-of-state plates testified to the attraction world-class soccer holds.

AC Milan fan Andrew Ramsey drove from New York City for the game. His old college friend, Andy Volosky of Pittsburgh, was part of a contingent wearing the red-and-black of the Italian team. Mr. Ramsey “converted us,” his friend said, and provided most of them with suitable fan wear.

David Grzesek of Jackson, Mich., brought AC Milan jerseys for his crowd. A strength and fitness coach who has worked as an athletic trainer with Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, Mr. Grzesek said his love for the team stems back to admiring the Milan team colors as a child.

Driving to Pittsburgh was a haul, compared to Mr. Grzesek’s next game. One of many North American cities hosting the tournament is Ann Arbor, Mich., and he has tickets to see Real Madrid of Spain play Manchester United of England on Saturday.

Before the match, Mr. Grzesek said the tournament was a boon to international fans. A tank of gasoline was nothing compared to the alternative: “I don’t have to spend thousands of dollars or get on a plane.”

Just before game time, he upped his level of fan commitment by painting his face red, white and black.

Although fan paint was on relatively rare display, Carrick teens Harley Nugent, Michael Nugent and Jacob Church gave it a shot. Liberally smearing red finger paint down their arms, legs and faces, even into their hair, they resembled lobsters baking in the mid-day heat.

The sunny weather didn’t last long, as clouds quickly gathered amid storm warnings. A deluge and threat of lightning would cause a 20-minute delay later in the afternoon, but as a reporter from the London Daily Mail noted in his running online commentary, “Rain and Thunder, City fans will feel right at home.”

 

Connor Mulvaney/Post-Gazette

A young AC Milan fan cheers on his team on face paint and a sign Sunday at Heinz Field.

 

For Pittsburgh natives John and Jason Koval, perhaps that was true. They spent part of their childhood in London, which is where they fell in love with the team. John Koval, who now lives in Chicago, said the Internet has made a huge difference in his being able to keep up with the Blues.

Sean Smith, who flew in from Orlando, Fla., for the match, was a stranger when the day began. But after discovering he was a Manchester City man, he and the Kovals banded together to tailgate.

”We have a common bond,“ Mr. Koval said.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciuloPG; hgardner@post-gazette.com; rschaffer@post-gazette.com.


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