SANDY — Every insult, every jab Chris Enger has endured for the past seven years will be worth it when he takes his seat at Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday night.
That's because whether Real Salt Lake wins or loses the CONCACAF Champions League final against Monterrey at Rio Tinto Stadium, the team's success against international squads has transformed American soccer from the sports equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield to George Clooney in cleats.
Finally, MLS fans are getting a little respect.
"I take a lot of heat, especially from my in-laws," he said laughing. "Even around the neighborhood. I've heard it all."
Enger, 34, can rattle off the taunts he's endured from the moment he declared his love for a sport that is often misunderstood and even maligned by many sports fans and traditional media outlets in the U.S.
"Where is the Capri Sun and orange slices?" he said. "My kids played soccer until they were old enough to play a real sport. How can you watch a sport where there is no score? It's like kissing your sister. It's a boring sport; there is no scoring; they're flopping. For as long as (Real) has been here, I've heard them all — mostly just typical Jim Rome anti-soccer sentiments."
Enger grew up playing football and wrestling. And while he continues to be a Jazz and dedicated college football fan (Utah), it only took one game for him to fall head over heels for the beautiful game.
"I was instantly hooked," he said. "I ordered Fox Soccer (channel) right afterward. It's the energy after a goal is scored; it's so euphoric. It's not like any other scoring in any other sport."
His passion runs so deep that instead of taking time off to watch the NCAA men's basketball tournament like he used to, he watches the opening round of MLS games instead.
He is not alone in his passion for not just soccer, but Real soccer.
"This is a dream for a lot of soccer fans," said Spence Checketts, radio host of the Bill and Spence Show on ESPN 700 (weekdays from 2-6 p.m.). "It's a dream for my father (Dave Checketts) who brought the team here, and a dream for Jason (Kreis, coach) who has been there from the start. For American soccer to be getting this attention and respect, this is what soccer fans in this country have dreamt about for decades."
Checketts said television ratings prove the interest in the game exists in the U.S.
"ESPN has covered (soccer) ... and the ratings for European soccer games are healthy," he said. "The ratings for MLS games are rather pedestrian. It shows Americans have a taste for soccer but they have a taste for the best soccer."
He points at that one of the most impressive aspects of Real's success isn't just that they're winning on an international stage but that they're doing it differently.
"They're playing, they're winning in a style that you only see in Europe," he said. "RSL is sort of an American-Spanish hybrid. It's their ability to mix work ethic and flair play that is so interesting."
There is another benefit to winning on an international stage — casual fans start to pay attention. Denzel Eslinger started a blog about the sport and Real Salt Lake (rslsoapbox.com) years ago, in an effort to offer hungry fans in-depth and positive information when a lot of the chatter was controversial and negative.
"Soccer is not only a great sport," said Denzel Eslinger. "Soccer and the MLS are great experiences."
Television doesn't always capture the essence of the game.
"Soccer is such a live and vibrant thing," said Eslinger. "There is an energy that happens for those 90 minutes on the pitch."
He said long-time fans will welcome those jumping on the red and blue bandwagon.
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