I was among a gang of Rapids fans that traveled to Rio Tinto Stadium last Saturday. (If you're morbidly curious, I'm the guy in the burgundy shirt holding up the black scarf.)
I've been a Colorado Rapids fan since essentially the beginning of the team. I wasn't too big into the whole scene in the first few years with hockey taking most of my young attention, but I always loved to go to Rapids games and watch the beautiful game even when the rules were absolutely stupid. (Aah, shootouts. We barely knew thee!)
Still, even with my Rapids love growing yearly as I continued to follow the team I never took the time to join any of the supporters groups until 2010, when there finally settled three solid ones. With that in mind, I had never gone on an away trip either. Never had seen Salt Lake or Kansas City or any other team play my beloved Rapids in their home stadiums. That is, until last Saturday.
Oh my, I wish I hadn't waited that long.People in countries like England take away matches for granted. Watch any EPL or Championship game and you'll see a couple hundred fans wearing the wrong colors filling a section of the home stadium. Of course there's the argument that pretty much everyone in countries like England love football, but it's really easy out there to travel. Even a trip to Middlesbrough for a Brighton and Hove supporter - almost from the very bottom of the country to the very top - is a mere five hour drive. Just about every supporter can reach every other supporter's stadium with little to no problems.
Americans (and Canadians) don't quite have that advantage. The league spans two gigantic countries with only 19 teams spread out among them. A traveling fan in MLS needs to have a lot more dedication to their club than a traveling fan in England. After all, what's a short train ride to The Den if you're a Crystal Palace fan to watch a match against Millwall? Even if they lose (dear lord why do they always lose) it's a hop, skip and a jump and you're home again.
It's three hours from Portland to Seattle. Four hours from DC to New York. Five hours from LA to San Jose. To get to Salt Lake from Colorado, it's an eight hour drive. Heck, those are just the geographic rivalry games. Were you a Chicago fan that wanted to see your Fire play the Rapids? We apologize for the 1000 mile, 15 hour drive you had to endure. Lord help you if you're an Earthquakes fan who has a hankering to see a game in Montreal.
It's the distance that scares a lot of people away from road trips in Major League Soccer. As much fun as it might seem, why bother going all that distance for 90 minutes of action and wasting gas or money for airlines and hotels? That was my biggest hold up when it came to the idea of being a traveling fan. Fortunately, my girlfriend got us $10 tickets to Salt Lake City thanks to her airline points and we got an easy in to see our team play their rivals in SLC.
Yes, the Rapids lost 2-0. It was still possibly the most fun I ever have had at a Rapids game. Being with 60-70 other Rapids fans clustered together trying to out-sing an opposing stadium was a thrill, regardless of result. A friend of mine once said that 'Soccer crowds are by far the greatest things to be a part of'. I'm pretty sure he's right, and the fun only intensifies when it's you against the world.
I think every MLS fan should have the experience of supporting their team across a border. My first time was the worst possible game that my team could have played but the most possible fun I think could have been had in such a situation. Plus, a group of 100 fans singing in different colors looks really damn good on TV.
Isn't it more fun as a home fan when there's a group of rabid away fans, too? One of my favorite Rapids games in my lengthy career as a guy who watches Rapids games was the home opener last season when several hundred Timbers fans crowded DSGP's away section to duel the Rapids supporters groups in song.
It's a great thing right now for the league, the only real option for fans right now if they want to be represented at other venues.
In the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, there is something called 'traveling fanbases'. It's comprised of all the people who moved from one city to another - or just bandwagoned a team out of the blue despite where they live, as in most Red Wings, Yankees and Lakers fans - who flood a home team's stadium on a game day so they can see their favorite team play even though they live on the road. Major League Soccer isn't at a point where there are that many 'traveling fans' because the league is still young and growing. There haven't been several generations of fans born in different places and raised on teams they don't live by like there have in other sports, or enough fans of the league nationwide in general to have those kind of numbers.
Imagine the 100 or so scattered, hardcore St. Louis fans that are at the Pepsi Center every time the Avalanche play the Blues. Now imagine if they were all put in a section together and you'll see how the growth of the league could eventually create a situation where every MLS game has a fan base in the away section.
Until then, we have to go on our own resources to fill rivals' stadiums as the only real option. It will always be the only option for people who live in their home city, and while it's hard work and more money than it would be in another, smaller country, I assure you that it is completely worth it.
Will there be a time when there are enough MLS fans in the country that there will be 'traveling fanbases' that already live in every city? I think there might be some day. Until then, every MLS fan owes it to themselves to see what they've been missing if they haven't checked out a game away from their home stadium. Every team in the league has a rival in one manner or another, and a lot of them already have good away game support like RSL-Rapids, Seattle-Portland and LA-Chivas (helps that they play in the same stadium).
It's things like seeing 500 Portland fans singing in Seattle or 100 Rapids fans invading Rio Tinto and the thrill that they are having that bring casual fans or even non fans into MLS more. I know when I saw the Pid Army and Bulldog Supporters dancing around the terraces in my first game in 2010 (right before I started this blog, actually!) I was drawn into the idea and have rarely missed a game in the terraces since. Try and show a picture of 500 Sounders fans at Portland or even just the 70 Rapids fans who traveled eight hours to Rio Tinto to someone who says that 'nobody cares about soccer in the USA'.
Props to the guys in MLS that have been following their team around for years, I'm sad I didn't join your ranks sooner. Check the stands at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 21st, you might just see me there again with a couple dozen of my closest friends.