The Good, The Bad And The Utterly Embarrassing Aspects Of MLS Supporter Culture

As MLS fans, we should be joyfully self-deprecating about where we are, but it’s beyond thrilling to think about where we’ll be.

I’ve seen some s**t. I remember thinking Sam’s Army was about the coolest thing throughout the buildup to the 2006 World Cup. It was a group of Americans that were all soccer fans that got together to cheer for soccer — it was insane, it was wildly progressive and it was extremely dangerous.

Then I remember seeing kids younger than myself in UFC Tapout style clothing with an affinity for bandanas and a more sophisticated songbook than just "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!". They were scoundrels, these young men and women, and they all supported Arsenal or Manchester United. They called themselves the American Outlaws, which was funny.  

American Outlaws

The American Outlaws at the Copa America Centenario. Photo: Connor Fleming

I’d seen tens of fans at Minnesota Thunder games, but I’d also seen a huge crowd turn out to watch an AC Milan youth team play the Thunder on a turf field in suburban Minnesota. I went to a game at Toyota Park when it opened in 2006 as the fourth soccer-specific stadium in US history. I couldn’t believe it — professional soccer, in a stadium built for professional soccer, being watched by 20,000 fans.

I went back to another game in 2014 to see the Fire take on Thierry Henry’s Red Bulls. I couldn’t believe how, despite the commitment of a few, Chicago had managed to f*** up running a club in one of the most global and sports-mad cities in the country.

Chicago Fire supporters

The few, the proud. Photo: Connor Fleming

 

In 22 years of existence, MLS has shifted, grown and welcomed new entities into the league. Some of these clubs have been created out of thin air (e.g. NYCFC and Atlanta United), and that leads to an interesting dichotomy between club and supporter culture.

How does a group earnestly exist behind a shared common interest that is, to a large degree, imagined? This point is only magnified by the chimera that is European supporter culture.

Colorado Rapids

The Colorado Rapids have struggled to generate enthusiasm around the state. Photo: Connor Fleming

This makes American supporters an easy, and usually fair, target of ridicule, especially from other Americans that love nothing more than to s**t on the league. Just look at this video of Atlanta United supporters that has been doing the rounds for a week now. The chant is godawful — a few guys screaming through a megaphone at a grandmother to watch her mouth. It's like a filming of High School Superfans Gone Wild.

It’s so cringeworthy that it’s hard to watch. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a preseason game, and these supporters have traveled out-of-state to watch their newly formed club play a meaningless match. What’s more, Atlanta has already sold over 30,000 season tickets this year — let’s just hope that they all don’t chant “You better watch your mouth” in unison.

This forced mimicry of attempting to fuse notions of English firms, Italian ultras and Argentine barra bravas fails immediately upon watching an American bashfully raise his or her scarf, anxiously looking at those around them and wondering how much longer this display of scarfery is to continue. 

In MLS, we’ve got this.

But in the very same place, we’ve got this.

 

As a Newcastle United fan and Minnesotan, it made me smile to read about how Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath hopes to make Minnesota the Newcastle of MLS. It’s laughable because, yes, just like Newcastle, Minnesota teams are renowned for failure, and I expect United to be no different (at least this season). I also know that over 35,000 Minnesotans will show up to TCF Stadium next Sunday - I’ll be among them - and they won’t have a clue what to do.

A match day in Newcastle crackles with anticipation, over 50,000 go in procession towards the cathedral of St. James’ Park situated on a slope overlooking Newcastle upon Tyne. The words of former manager Sir Bobby Robson embolden the relationship of the city with the 124-year-old club:

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

Newcastle UnitedSt James' Park in Newcastle upon Tyne Photo: Connor Fleming

St James' Park in Newcastle upon Tyne Photo: Connor Fleming

Minnesota boasts two excellent supporter groups (the Dark Clouds and True North Elite) that have supported Minnesota soccer through thick and thin, but they’ll be an amusing novelty to the majority of Minnesotans in the building (we’re not exactly the standup and sing type).

The noise and the passion, outside of a select few, might be lacking. But what I’m excited about has everything to do with the last part of Robson’s quote. For the first time ever, a young Minnesotan will watch the likes of Kevin Molino, Johan Venegas and Josh Gatt represent this state against MLS’s best. 

They’ll see something entirely different from the Minnesota Thunder playing on a high school football field, and I’m absolutely certain that they’ll fall in love.

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