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The #1 challenge of supporting an American soccer team

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While American soccer is taking off at all levels, supporters here still have challenges that European supporters do not.

MLS: New England Revolution at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Most fans will agree that the single greatest asset any American soccer team has is its supporters. In a recent BW interview, author Phil West mentioned the importance of supporters’ groups in MLS:

For the earliest groups, and even with relatively newer groups like Timbers Army, ECS, Sons of Ben, and your C38, I see supporters' groups as catalysts for energy in the rest of the stadium, and something that contributes to the atmosphere in the stadium. It allows soccer to be an organic live experience that you just won't get in, say, an NBA game, where there's such a clear orchestration of the fan experience directed from the front office.

American supporters bring a special experience and atmosphere to the stadiums in cheering their respective teams on to victory. I cannot imagine what DSGP would be like without Centennial 38 (C38), or a Timbers game without the Timbers Army, and so forth.

Some who venture outside the American soccer scene try to compare American soccer with the long-standing traditions found in European soccer. In a recent article, I originally made this comment:

Don’t fall into the trap of comparing MLS to other world leagues. MLS has its own special flare whose on-field product is increasing markedly every year (which I will outline in a future article). I believe we are in for a special 2017, league-wide.

Which got me thinking. There’s an obvious trend of emulating European soccer traditions (tifos, scarves, club names) here in America. But what if American supporters tried to make the game their own instead of borrowing from other leagues? This would surely attract more supporters, right?

The MLS Atmosphere

Supporters here have challenges that other European leagues do not, but they also have the opportunity to address these difficulties and move forward in embracing soccer, American-style.

I recently came across an article from the18.com delicately entitled, “The Good, The Bad And The Utterly Embarrassing Aspects of MLS Supporter Culture.” While this looked like another dig about US soccer from outside the US (yawn!), I noticed that this chap was from Minnesota. That, plus this subtitle, caught my attention:

“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.”

“Joyfully self-deprecating.” Well, as long as MLS fans are ‘joyfully’ self-deprecating, all is well. But why be self-deprecating at all? Let’s embrace who we are, where we are!

I, for one, believe we shouldn't give a flying fig what the world thinks of American soccer. Yet, many American soccer fans likely grew up watching European soccer, and thus want to incorporate European traditions into the American soccer landscape.

The18.com article includes some rather cringeworthy examples of supporter chants that, frankly, need to go away. The author, Connor Fleming, brings in a number of examples of how soccer is struggling to gain traction in some areas. I would have blown this off if it wasn’t for this choice photo from a Colorado Rapids game.

Is that Obafemi Martens of the Seattle Sounders over the ball? Before the game? That means that we have a photo from the Rapids’ awful 2015 season. Of course, the stands weren’t filled. This was, I believe, a September or October game where the Rapids were out of it by May. Plus, this photo was taken during warm-ups when not everyone arrives on time. (Unless that part of the point he was making?)

But I digress.

Many soccer fans embraced European soccer while the MLS was gaining traction, then wanted to bring that atmosphere into MLS. We can't help ourselves, can we? Maybe, maybe not. But this isn’t even the most problematic issue to the American soccer scene.

Sir Alex Identifies the Primary Challenge for American Supporters

Unlike the writer of the previously mentioned article, Sir Alex Ferguson (yes, that Sir Alex Ferguson) recently made American soccer headlines by giving kudos to the improvement of MLS. Speaking to ESPN FC, Ferguson shared his observations:

"I've been watching very carefully over the last few years. They've had some major changes. One, they've started some academy systems and that's very, very important. I think that what they probably need is more professional coaches. I think that's something for the future."

Yet, in this article, he identifies an issue that goes beyond the nuances of American supporter groups. He addresses the biggest challenge as to why supporters will struggle actually supporting their teams like EPL supporters—away matches. Take a listen:

"It's a big country, the United States If you look at Europe, I can go on a flight from Manchester to Berlin in an hour-and-a-half . Maybe at some point, regional leagues will come into it. Because one of the benefits of Europe is that supporters can travel. It's more difficult in the United States to go six hours to support your team. And supporters are vital to the atmosphere."

Embrace the tifos (which are fan-stinkin-tastic and growing more creative and epic as the seasons pass). Heck, even as a summer league, embrace the scarves. I find ‘FC’ and ‘United’ monikers trying to hard to connect to Europe.

But Ferguson’s comments about the vast area of the country (see illustration below)...

... bring to light an issue that many Americans never considered. If we wish to embrace our American flare, then the issue is not just how many people come to home games (though it couldn’t hurt), but the capability to travel to away games. Real Salt Lake plays eight hours away from Commerce City. Sporting Kansas City plays nine hours away. Those are both are within driving distance, but everywhere else requires a flight and a hotel.

Take a look at the map of the 2016-17 Premiere League teams (via NBC Sports):

The southernmost EPL team is AFC Bournemouth, and the northernmost team is Sunderland. According to Google maps, this takes five hours and 30 minutes by car or 75 minutes via plane ($98 flight). Five teams are in London proper (Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Ham United). Check out the pretty cool article mapping out each of the teams. You’ll see the distance for the majority of away games of any club is manageable by car, allowing traveling supporters to make their presence felt.

What Think Ye?

  1. How much do you care about connecting with the traditions of European football? Do we need to come up with our own American flare?
  2. Does Ferguson have a point? Do the travel requirements deter you from traveling to away games?

Regarding the last, I truly believe that Americans ‘get’ how big the country is and that Ferguson and any other European coming to play in the US sees this as a bigger issue due to their particular perspective. Still...

Sound off in the comments.