Disillusioned With Football? Head Stateside, Try Soccer
With more and more English fans becoming disillusioned with the way the game is going – even while being told that the Premiership is the best league in the world – interest in other leagues has never been higher. Money is king, and that has caused many fans to bemoan the state of domestic football compared to the seemingly utopian ideals of leagues like the German Bundesliga. Eyes are enviously cast towards Spain, and Serie A in Italy has, especially since the Gazza years, had its fans. Many of these fans have started ‘following’, if not ‘supporting’ sides beyond Britain’s shores. Most make a decision between Barcelona and Real Madrid, but there are a growing number of fans who are attracted to the smaller clubs, authentic outfits which carry a certain credibility that the behemoth modern day sporting brands from the Premiership can’t provide. But it is slightly further afield that I think fans wanting to regain an authentic football feeling should be looking – the USA.
Often derided in Britain, the MLS is unrecognisable from the way it is reported on in the mainstream press and talked about by so-called football pundits. If it wasn’t for David Beckham there would hardly have been any coverage of the league at all in the British media. Pundits sneer at stadiums with names like Home Depot Center and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, yet refer to the Emirates and Etihad without batting an eyelid. But with players like Jermaine Defoe, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey turning out for North American sides the league will surely only get stronger and more attractive.
It is the American fan culture that is really impressive, though. Throwing off the dated image of soccer moms, clubs in the MLS and lower leagues are creating an atmosphere that English clubs should envy. Drawing from British and European fan culture as well as Central and South America, fans in the USA produce elaborate tifo and create electric atmospheres that seem like something from the old terrace days in Britain. New clubs are springing up across the States all the time but there are also clubs with real tradition - and fans that recognise that. These are knowledgeable supporters who don’t see football as a minority sport in their country.
One of the best examples of this fan culture in MLS is the supporters of Portland Timbers, or the Timbers Army as they’re known. Although only admitted into MLS in 2011, the club looks back to the halcyon days of the mid 70s as their real formation, and have a reputation as one of the best places to watch a match in the country. As with many American sides there is European ultra-style fan organisation, but without any of the extreme politics – unless you count classing yourself as Cascadian rather than American as extreme. Although the Timbers haven’t started this season very impressively, they did make the MLS Conference Finals (one step away from the final) last year, even with Kris Boyd masquerading as their ‘designated player’ (basically their Beckham).
Another aspect of football in America that is becoming increasingly common is fan groups cropping up even before the formation of a club to support. In a country where football isn’t a traditional sport, but with an ever-increasing fanbase, this phenomenon isn’t as strange as it initially sounds. The best example of this is fans of Philadelphia Union. With rumours around the American game in 2007 suggesting that Philadelphia could be in the running for a new club, the Sons of Ben supporters group formed to help make that dream a reality. Although not actually being announced until 2008 – and not playing their first match until 2010 – almost 3,000 fans replied to a season ticket drive almost immediately after the Sons of Ben were formed.
The clamour for tradition and what defines a ‘real’ supporter is just as prevalent in the US as anywhere else. Supporters had long petitioned for a New York MLS side that actually played in New York (as opposed to the New York Red Bulls née Metrostars, who play in New Jersey). And when a group came forward to reboot the New York Cosmos a few years ago, these fans could cling to the tradition and glamour of arguably the best known American club ever. Although the club playing staff is a far cry from the Pele and Beckenbauer glory days of the 1970s, former Villareal and Spain star Marcos Senna is enjoying a glorious end to his career as the star player in a side that won the NASL Soccer Bowl (effectively the second tier) in its inaugural season last year. Although in Britain fans might shudder at the mention of a ‘brand’ when describing a club, the Cosmos have one of the most recognisable in the world, which could be very attractive for fans in this country wanting to follow an American club. How the emergence of the newly announced NYCFC, part of the ever expanding Manchester City world family, will affect the Cosmos is anyone’s guess, but they could rightly claim to be the only club in New York at the moment.
Part of choosing a side from another country is the location and Detroit, once known for its cars and records, has now become - not completely fairly - a byword for the failure. Included in countless 'ruin porn' articles, Detroit has suffered more than most over the past 30 or 40 years. But there have been signs of resurrection and resurgence in the bankrupt city that had been written off by many.
The grittiness and no-nonsense attitude shines through with fans of Detroit City Football Club who play in the fourth tier of the American football pyramid. Flares, smoke bombs and marching to the ground is all part of the match day experience for these fans as they revel in the image of this hardened city. With promotion and relegation not a factor in America it is unlikely that DCFC will grace the upper echelons of MLS but if its true fan culture you’re after you could do a lot worse than Le Rouge.
With the money in the game these days there have unfortunately been far too many examples of unscrupulous owners, with no love of the game, pushing clubs to the very limits of existence before walking away leaving the fans mopping up the pieces and taking over their clubs. Other groups of fans have refused to accept what was happening at their clubs – and to the game in general – and walked away to form their own supporter owned clubs with what they regard to be the true spirit of the game. America is more used to being seen as the epitome of capitalism and greed but there is one team that could attract fans more aligned with fan ownership. About to play their first ever games in the NPSL, Nashville FC are a club formed by the fans for the fans. Inspired by the anti-Glazer fans who went on to form FC United of Manchester, a group of football fans in Nashville decided if supporters of one of the biggest clubs in the world could reject the monetisation of football and bring the sport back to its purer roots then they could do the same. After the local side folded they decided they would start a club on their terms. With a couple of slight hiccups along the way they are now embarking on their inaugural season less than a year on from coming up with the idea over a few drinks.
There are countless other examples of interesting clubs in the country – both emerging and established - so, if you’ve become disillusioned with English football, and hanker after a more authentic experience, then maybe forget Barca or Real, Juve or Milan, and look across the Atlantic to see what happens when real fans support this once beautiful game.
Follow Dan on Twitter at @LasVegasWI