Monday, April 14, 2014

Palace, You Really Got Me Now, You Got Me So I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Geography should dictate sports allegiances. Unless you’re from Alaska or your dad is playing professionally somewhere out of town, I’ve always believed the team near your house is the team you root for and you never, ever stray. Exclamation point.

But as my infatuation for the non-American football grew last year, I faced a quandary. As much as I adhere to the strict guidelines of geography, and as entertaining as this thing called Major League Soccer can be, the product on the pitch isn't good enough to sustain me. Tim Cahill can score four seconds into a game and it won't matter: My heart won't ever be into the New York Red Bulls.

Once NBC locked up its lavish TV contract to ping top-flight English football to U.S. televisions and computers, my quandary became simpler and didn’t involve geography: Which Premier League team would I pick?

Manchester United was immediately eliminated, because when you root for the New York Yankees, you can't root for another New York Yankees. I quickly tossed out other favorites like Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and especially Tottenham, as I didn't want to be the rookie at the bar denying the charges of bandwagon jumping when I still couldn't identify an offside without a slow-motion replay.

Then it came to me that the purest entry into Premier League fandom was to pick one of the three promoted teams. Eventually I settled on a team with a long absence from the top flight and a history of financial insolvency, one that needed a dramatic injury time penalty to secure the third promotion spot from the Championship last year - Crystal Palace. I realized most people didn't give them much of a chance to stay up, but that would be the fun of it, right?

Then the season started, and the losses piled up, and it became quickly evident that a team with zero goal-scoring problems in the lower league had the tendency to score zero goals in the higher one. It didn't help that their most prolific scorer from the prior campaign was still out injured, and their second most prolific was wallowing on the Man U bench. I’d invite friends out to bars to watch early, and the games would be over early.

Through the losing, I worried my allegiance would fade. I wasn't born rooting for these guys. I wasn't sure they'd pass the same litmus test that my beloved but flawed New York Knicks passed the time I saw them play basketball against the now-local Brooklyn Nets. It never even crossed my mind that I’d desert the Knicks.

With Palace, it did cross my mind. I did think of leaving. Would I stay with them if they got relegated and their games weren’t on TV anymore? The early losing led to a managerial change, and while they picked up a few wins, they stayed in the drop zone and subconsciously, I gave them until the New Year to keep me.

But deeper in my subconscious, I found myself getting to know the players: I wondered why they’d always pick the speedy Cameron Jerome as striker, even though he was the clumsiest finisher I've seen in the entire league. Why weren't they playing young and talented Dwight Gayle more often? Was defender Joel Ward really happy with his sudden move to midfield? Did Glenn Murray just Tweet that he’s coming back from his knee injury soon??!! I was starting to care about this team from South London like they played right around the corner.

On Boxing Day, Gayle curled in an injury-time beauty from just outside the box to break a 0-0 tie at Aston Villa, and I screamed in joy. A poor quality game had, to me, become the most thrilling and beautiful match in the history of sport(s). Something was happening. I wasn’t going to relegate them for New Year’s.

Out of the drop zone but close enough where it was still a real possibility, Palace took the pitch at Selhurst Park three Saturdays ago to play Chelsea. In my wildest fantasy, the Eagles would somehow coax a draw out of the first-place team, en route to barely surviving relegation.

But early in the second half of a 0-0 game, Chelsea captain John Terry headed the ball into his own goal while trying to head it out of harm’s way. My phone lit up with texts. “Palace leads,” said one. “Holy shit,” said another. I watched on my phone as the final seconds of injury time ticked off and Selhurst Park lost its shit. I had chills. This was my team doing this. My boys.

Two weeks ago, Palace played its most thorough game of the year, winning 3-0 away at Cardiff and getting to 34 points for the season. Another win this weekend over Villa took them just three points shy of the magical 40-point barrier that usually marks staying up, but things look good. 

Palace has me by the balls and I’d follow them to the Championship and, God forbid, I’d follow them to League One if I had to. All I know is that it's far more exciting than watching this year's Knicks - and you get to drink at 10am!

- Joe Checkler
Follow him at @JoeCheckler