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Some Thoughts About the New Dallas Sidekicks

<img class="size-full wp-image-75328" title="tatuspeak" src="http://frontburner.dmagazine.com/wp-co

ntent/uploads/2012/12/tatuspeak.jpeg” alt=”” width=”635″ height=”381″ /> Tatu addresses Dallas Sidekicks players. Source: Dallas Sidekicks

Tomorrow night, the Dallas Sidekicks play the Texas Strikers in Allen. I mention this because a few weeks ago Brad and I went up to Allen, to watch a Sidekicks game. I also got the chance to talk with Tatu and new owner Ronnie Davis.

I should say: I grew up here watching the Sidekicks, going to Tatu’s camps, hoping more than anything that one day I would catch one of the jerseys he threw into the crowd after he scored a goal. (I never did.) I had the programs, watched the away games on TV, and knew the name, position, and hometown of every player on the team. I have a lot of the Never Say Die documentary memorized. (I am a nerd and I played soccer, so…) Brad had never attended a professional indoor soccer game before. He claims he played indoor soccer when he was younger, and was aware professional indoor soccer existed.

Here are some thoughts about the experience:

There was a time when Tatu thought the Dallas Sidekicks were gone for good. It was toward the end of 2009, just a few days before Reunion Arena was demolished. As the indoor soccer legend picked through what was left of all the Sidekicks memorabilia in the dusty, soon-to-be-destroyed offices–the empty building felt like the set of a zombie movie–he found a framed photograph of the old scoreboard. It was from a night in 1987, when the team sold out the arena. The scoreboard read 16,882, and it symbolized how far the team had come all those years ago: in a span of months, the Sidekicks went from the verge of folding to the front page of both Dallas daily newspapers. As Tatu packed as much stuff as he could into his car, he figured the franchise was dead.

He missed his former teammates, even the ones he didn’t get along with so well. After 20 years of playing–and then coaching–he’d been through so much with those guys: the great wins, the painful losses, the long stretches on the road away from their wives and children. He’d come to think of these guys as part of a family.

“I just thought, ‘This time in my life is over,’” Tatu told me. “It was one of the saddest times in my life.”

Before the Mavs were any good, before the Rangers ever made it to the playoffs, before Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith ever put on Cowboys jerseys, well before there was an FC Dallas, there was Tatu and the Dallas Sidekicks. The team’s dramatic championship run in the mid-’80s captivated a lot of people around here, landing the star player all sorts of sponsorships and endorsement deals. Tatu was the MVP, and regularly led the league in points. And every time he scored a goal in Reunion Arena, the place would electrify and he would whip off his shirt and toss it into the adoring crowd. (The success of the Sidekicks is one of the main reasons soccer is now the most popular youth sport in North Texas.)

As Tatu got older and the other pro sports teams in Dallas got better, the luster of the Sidekicks fell away. In an effort to woo more female fans, the team switched its colors from green to purple in the ’90s, but it wasn’t enough. In 2004, the franchise folded.

Ronnie Davis, the new owner, is hoping to bring it all back. He worked for the Sidekicks in the heyday, when the team shared operations with the Mavericks. He says he’s excited to have a staff that can focus solely on soccer.

“We always said that if we got the chance, there were a lot of things we’d do differently,” Davis says. (One of the biggest questions in re-starting the franchise was about the team colors. He says fans clamored for the Kelly-green of the glory days, but that the purple logo is simply more recognizable. “One day, we might even try to combine them in some way,” he says.)

Tatu is as fierce a coach as he was a goal scorer (and he scored more than 800 goals in his career). He yells at his players to work together, to use the boards, to build cohesion. Although the league has some teams that will be familiar to Sidekicks fans–the Tacoma Stars and the San Diego Sockers, for instance–most of the teams are new, and Tatu has no idea what most the competition will be like.

“I just wish I knew what kind of monster we’ll be facing,” he says. “But we’ll know soon enough.”

So, what did we think when we went to the game?

1) It was awesome. We both had a great time. The Allen Event Center was just short of a sell-out–about 6,000 people–and the energy in the place was palpable. There were a lot of young soccer players, and even when the game was not particularly competitive (the Sidekicks are 4-0 this year, and have been pretty dominant so far) everyone was pretty engaged. They’ve got pop music, giveaways for the kids, and alcohol for the adults. For the money, it’s some great entertainment.

2) The soccer itself is really exciting. Because it’s been a while, I’d forgotten how fast and technical the game is. Great footwork, great passing, and some amazing goals. (We couldn’t help but stand up and cheer when Ricardinho scored on a bullet from 25 feet.) There are some former SMU players, but mostly it’s a mix of international players from all over the map. The field looks incredible, too. Fans from back in the day will experience all sorts of pleasant deja vu, and newcomers can’t help but have a good time.

3) Convenience. Brad noted, somewhere in the second quarter: “If this was closer, I’d go all the time.” Driving from Dallas to Allen (especially near the time of rush hour) isn’t fun. But the parking is free and there are plenty of restaurants around the arena. The franchise isn’t quite popular enough to play in a place like American Airlines yet, and they’d have a harder time getting the right dates at a venue like that anyway. Also, there are a lot of soccer fans and young families in Collin County, so it kind of makes sense from that standpoint.

4) The logo. Look, I grew up watching the Sidekicks when they were green. I wasn’t a big fan of the purple when they turned in the early ’90s. Tatu even admitted he prefers the green. Davis told me that he briefly considered going with purple turf for the entire field, but he wisely chose otherwise. I’m still holding out hope that they’ll go green again one day.

5) Traditions. Aside from the aesthetics, the team is doing everything possible to honor the franchise heritage. They regularly bring in former players, and jersey retirement ceremonies. (Tomorrow night is David Doyle…if you know who that is, we would probably get along pretty well.) They even have 43-year-old Nick Stavrou still playing midfield. Former Sidekicks coach Gordan Jago is in the press box, calling the games with Norm Hitzges. They also still do a giant balloon pop before the fourth quarter (it sounds like a 30-second gun fight) and every time anyone of the Sidekicks players scores a goal, they still throw a Tatu jersey into the crowd. It’s nice.

Will the team ever live up to the memories for people like me? Can it ever compare with those days in the ’80s, when they drew bigger crowds than the Mavericks or Rangers? I wouldn’t have thought so, until I went to the game.

Tatu actually summed it up pretty well: “We’re not back to where we were yet,” he told me. “But we could be soon. And this could be even better.”