LAS VEGAS – There are two types of people who follow soccer: fans and supporters.
Though supporters are certainly fans of the game and their team, it’s their passion – some might say obsession – for the latter that sets them apart. Their songs, their flags and their coordinated tifo displays are all indicators that they don’t just want to watch the game, they want to be part of the game.
Fans love soccer, supporters live soccer.
Turn on any MLS or US Soccer broadcast these days and you’ll see dramatic shots of a packed stand heaving with raucous, die-hard supporters. It may be either during the run of play or as part of the pregame package, but the passion and pageantry are always on display.
From Toronto to Chicago, KC to DC, this dynamic fan support has become so common in MLS that the uninformed observer could be excused for taking it for granted. But anyone who’s been around the game in the US and Canada for any length of time knows that things have come a long way from the league’s early days.
“One thing that’s changed is with the arrival of social media like Twitter and Facebook, you have all these different ways of organizing many people in a short time,” former USMNT and MLS player Alexi Lalas said.
“The organization of the groups has become very sophisticated; they’re organized and have a plan," Lalas added. "That’s wonderful from a player’s perspective because they are an integral part of the growth of this sport as much as any of us who have ever kicked a ball.”
Another change is that when it comes to supporting their team, fans now have a multitude of options that weren’t always there in the past. Nowadays almost every MLS club has several independent and official groups a potential supporter can throw their lot in with. The same holds true for national teams.
For years Sam’s Army was the only game in town for fans of the USMNT. While informal and somewhat ragtag, the group pioneered supporter’s culture in the United States and provided a template upon which newer groups like the Lincoln, Neb.-based American Outlaws to build.
“Our goal is to be consistent and do the most we can for each game regardless of its significance,” AO president Justin Brunken said during the group's inaugural rally here this past weekend. “We want to have chapters in as many cities as we can because without the local chapters to do the legwork, we can’t do the things we do. Ultimately that’s what sets us apart: We understand that people want to be part of something bigger, and we want to help them do it.” The idea of being involved in something bigger is part of the supporters group’s appeal. The camaraderie, the sense of brother and sisterhood among the group’s members is a far cry from the alone-in-a-crowd experience that can often occur in any other section of the stadium.
This pack mentality has led to a boom in fan travel, so much so that many groups now have a travel coordinator among their ranks and take advantage of discount deals with major airlines, with no destination seemingly too far or inconvenient.
“People are more dedicated to it than ever before, traveling a lot more,” Brunken said. “They’ll just pick up and go with little reserve.”
“It’s grown into a community where someone from LA can fly to Seattle and someone they don’t really know will house them for the weekend. That’s something that I don’t think was there when I first started following soccer.”