After covering the International Champions Cup matches at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, I made the three hour trek north to Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. Not usually a fan of driving on Friday afternoons, especially from a major transit area like New York and New Jersey, I was unsurprised to find that my GPS showed a good amount of traffic between me and my destination.
Luckily, I’d given myself plenty of time so my thoughts shifted to the evening’s matchup. Benfica was to take on Fiorentina in the second match for each side in the ICC. Both sides had lost to Paris Saint-Germain in their previous matches. I’d watched Fiorentina lose at Red Bull Arena on July 21, while Benfica had fallen to the French champions in Toronto three days earlier.
Arriving in the greater Hartford area, I was taken aback by the amount of Benfica apparel in the area. Several bars had flags bearing the crest of the Portuguese powerhouse, while a few establishments had made signs inked with the names of their favorite players or memorable seasons.
Although quite easy to get to, Rentschler Field is a bit isolated in East Hartford, a thirty minute drive from the University of Connecticut’s main campus (it serves as the home stadium for their soccer and football teams). Surrounded by four large parking lots, the arena itself is open-air (except for the press box, which towers over the field like it’s trying to provide shade). Built on only one side of the stadium, the press box is vaguely reminiscent of that of a public high school in a small town, only bigger. Much bigger.
The stadium itself seats 40,000, but for the ICC match they only offered tickets for the bottom tier which seats 16,000. It turned out to be a smart decision, as the bottom tier ended up being packed with fans, the majority of whom wore the easily distinguishable red of Benfica. Of the 15,791 who attended, there had to be 15,000 who were supporting the Portuguese League winners.
Hartford, as the unofficial dividing line between Boston and New York, is quite a melting pot. As one of Connecticut’s many cities with a vibrant Portuguese population, it wasn’t surprising that East Hartford would be packed with Benfica fans. Hartford is also home to thousands of young people, either attending universities in the city or recent graduates living and working in the surrounding area. Support for soccer in America is undoubtedly growing, and mostly among the youth, so it stands to reason that a high-profile match between two well-known European clubs would draw a crowd.
Sitting in the press box, I was overwhelmed by the lack of English I was hearing. To my right were several Portuguese journalists, and on my left was the bulk of the Italian media. To be honest, it was quite refreshing. For a moment, I imagined I was abroad, sitting with the visiting team at Éstadio da Luz, or perhaps in the away stand at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, taking in an intriguing European Cup match.
Despite the mass-substitutions mid-match and the apparent nonchalance of the players during their warmup, there was no lack of effort given during the game – both sides wanted to win this one. As if to prove their commitment, tackles flew in thick and fast. Come the end of the first half, there had been five yellow cards given. Come the end of the match there were nine. Luisao, Benfica captain and club talisman in defense, was given his marching orders thanks to a rather soft second yellow card in the 66th minute. The referee was rather poor but unbiased in his officiating, which simply meant both teams were unfairly penalized about the same number of times.
Fiorentina’s Senad Lucic was easily man of the match in my opinion. His movement was essential for the Viola’s few successful attacks and he slammed the crossbar with a well-taken effort in the 55th. Other than that, there wasn’t much to speak of. Testing the fan’s commitment, rain began to drizzle and then pour in the final minutes of the match. Nobody moved, all well aware that this match was headed directly to penalties unless someone could break the deadlock.
The spot-kicks were, as ever, a tense affair, mostly because of how openly invested the Portuguese and Italian journalists were in the outcome. Each kick was greeted with a cheer or a groan, depending on who was involved. But someone had to lose. In the end, Luca Lezzerini was the Fiorentina hero, saving Medhi Carcela-Gonzalez’s penalty to the delight of his teammates and the dismay of the heavily pro-Benfica crowd.
Following the match, Lezzerini spoke to press in the mixed zone while his teammates heckled him from where they waited to get on the bus. Clearly unused to the spotlight, he blushed and grinned while giving his interview to ViolaChannel, the official Fiorentina club media. Lezzerini was promoted through the Fiorentina youth system, so this appearance likely meant far more to him than to the more seasoned players on the squad.
Giuseppe Rossi, who had only played 27 minutes in the loss, spoke to press for quite some time in the mixed zone. Speaking to ESPN, he admitted that he could “one day” be featuring in MLS, but for the time being he was simply focused on winning things with Fiorentina. He went on to say that he wants to secure silverware, and from there would welcome whatever changes may come. Positive words for MLS fans, and those who wish they could see Rossi showing his quality stateside.
As the team buses left, plenty of fans still lingered, cementing the once in a lifetime opportunity that the ICC offers in those regions in which the tournament is held. For some, this is simply a friendly match that they could watch on television. For those fans who came to East Hartford and braved the rain and traffic to see their favorite clubs, it was much more than that.