Crystal Palace has just won promotion to the English Premier League, returning to the top flight for the first time since 2004. Why, I hear you ask, would I be so enamored with a team few people in the U.S. have even heard about, until recently? Well, my relationship with the club began five years ago.
Spring, 2008. I had just joined Crystal Palace Baltimore as an intern, and the club was playing a preseason game at Maryland Soccerplex. CPB was getting ready to start its second season as a member of the old USL Second Division. They had moved their home games from Annapolis to UMBC’s complex in Catonsville, which was quite convenient for me, since I would be wrapping up my senior year at the school in just a few months, and an internship was required in the major that I was studying for. (Although, I had already filled that requirement earlier in my freshman year, writing for PressBox. But I digress.)
I received a free sweatshirt as one of the first perks of being an intern. Gray and warm, I slipped it on, as it was quite a breezy day in Germantown. I was vaguely familiar with the English club of the same name, but now, wearing that shirt, I really felt a part of the team, even though they were far across the Atlantic.
CPB started off well that year, winning their first five in a row. I began following our parent club’s fortunes as well. The U.K. squad, although nearing the end of their season at the time the USL season was just beginning, reached the playoffs, finishing fifth.
Alas, by the end of the 2008 year, the U.K. side had fallen to Bristol City in the semifinals, and Baltimore had lost a heartbreaking 2-1 decision to Charlotte in their semifinal. But I was hooked.
The next two years were pretty ordinary for both sides. Baltimore finished sixth in the standings in ’09, while our English counterparts ended up in 15th place. The following year, our U.K. brethren survived relegation on the final day of the season, while CPB lost their final eight games in a row, succumbing to financial difficulties which would ultimately leave them without a place in the USL.
Despite not having a local interest to root for in 2011, I continued to passionately follow the Eagles, based out of Selhurst Park in London. They still barely retained their Championship status that year, finishing 20th.
I began working with a new USL outfit, the Baltimore Bohemians, in 2012. As the new PDL side finished with a 5-7-4 record in their opening year, Palace had another average year over in England, staying towards the bottom of the standings. I began to think how fun it would be if they could improve even slightly, maybe at a mid-table finish, or even a playoff place.
Then, the 2012-13 season began. Palace stuttered out of the gate, occupying the bottom position after just three matches. Then they went on a tear. Three games in a row undefeated. Seven. Ten. Eventually, the streak reached 14. The Eagles were comfortably in the top six places, and the hope was for a top-two finish, meaning automatic promotion to the Premier League.
They struggled near the end of the season, managing to just finish in the playoff places, in fifth place. The semifinal against rivals Brighton was going to be intense. And it proved to be so. After a 0-0 first leg at home, Palace won 2-0 in the return leg on the road from two wonder-goals by Wilfried Zaha.
Palace had made it to Wembley Stadium for a chance to win the “richest game in football.” I had only been a fan for five years, but this was the most excited I had been for a match in recent memory.
I ventured to my friend’s house in D.C. on Monday to watch the final. We both were a part of the CPB team for a few years, both dabbling in the communications aspects of the club; he as the PR guru and match reporter, while I handled duties as a part-time intern, announcer, and jack of all trades.
As we watched Kevin Phillips slot home the lone goal from the penalty spot, holding our breath as the last Watford attack was barely hacked off the line by the defense, and hugging as the final whistle blew, a wave of happiness rushed over me.
The memories came back. The nights in the rain, putting up the banners at UMBC for games that barely brought in 1,000 fans. Beating an MLS team (the New York Red Bulls) in the U.S. Open Cup. Struggles and disappointment toward the end of the 2010 season. Sure, the U.S. squad didn’t have the prestige or media coverage of our neighbors across the pond, but in that moment, I realized the great power football has to unite us. One team, one passion. It’s still the Crystal Palace name. And no matter where you are, the friends, connections, and sights that you’ve held along the way will never fade.
We both felt “Glad All Over.”