Targeted Allocation: The many views of MLS fans

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As Graham Parker notes, how those from the inside see something isn't how those on the outside see it. And both positions should be valued.

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I was at the Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls game on Sunday night. It was a beautiful evening — an actual sellout with a great atmosphere, and a game which, whatever your views on its status as a legitimate rivalry, had all the intensity of one.

Part of the tone of the evening was inevitably set by the Union’s loud and cheerfully belligerent core of supporters at the River End of the Talen Energy Stadium. They started the evening with a “Build a Bonfire” tifo featuring a burning red bull, and then ran through a familiar litany of chants, from the eponymous chant to accompany the tifo, to their own version of Millwall’s “No one likes us, we don’t care.” 

They are not always original, but I like the Sons of Ben — there’s a lot of heart mixed in with their studied obnoxiousness. For every middle finger raised at an opposing supporter, there’s support for the family of a fallen one; for every uncharitable sentiment expressed in a chant, there’s an activity such as the food drives they’ve organized in their stadium’s hometown of Chester. And above all, there tends to be a lot of humor in what they do — from the moment they began gathering together, before a team in Philadelphia even existed, to attend MLS games throughout the Northeast in order to boo both teams, it was clear that if Philadelphia fandom’s reputation preceded it, the nascent Sons of Ben were going to use that to make a tongue-in-cheek point about who they were. If no one liked them, they wouldn’t care.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Union fans. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

I should note, though, that these days, when I go to a game where the Sons of Ben, or any other MLS supporters group are in attendance, I no longer give their presence too much attention, other than to note how loud they might be singing during a particular passage of play, or as on Sunday night, through a whole game. 

Of course, there was a time when I reacted differently — even a few short years ago, the presence of organized U.S. supporters groups and their behaviors was an anthropological curiosity to me, with many of the groups consisting of a kind of immigrant salad of European chanting, all-American call-and-response, South American constant tempo and capos, that was simultaneously everywhere else and only-in-the-U.S. at once.

There was plenty to sink your teeth into from that perspective. There were regional variations and idiosyncratic stories, for a start. From the Gorilla FC supporters in Seattle who started as WTO protestors turned five-a-side teammates in 1998, to Chivas USA’s Black Army, who filled the down time between their own club’s demise and the announcement of LAFC by offering to stand with supporters of anyone playing the LA Galaxy. For that matter there was the Galaxy’s LA Riot Squad, which was perhaps the group more than any other who challenged the image of U.S. support beyond these shores, when puzzled European fans saw TV footage of them booing David Beckham after his abortive attempt to force a move. 

When UK paper The Guardian launched its United States office and started covering U.S. sports, I suggested doing weekly previews in collaboration with fan reps, local bloggers and beat writers in each of the league’s territories, and so got to know more organized supporters and their histories — such as accounts of how D.C. United’s Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles helped shape a style of support that was further explored by Chicago’s Section 8 (who will always have a fond place in my heart for some of their members making a banner for legendary Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel when he died). Trying to collate these perspectives each week naturally proved to be like herding cats, but it gave me a perspective on the dedication, organization and essential decency of those trying to run these groups (even if they’d be appalled to be publicly described that way).

It’s why I, like many other fans, initially took offense at Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times Magazine piece last week, on American support. Extrapolating from one game to such a broad stroke picture of American soccer culture and the role that masculinity, race, and a dollop of cultural appropriation play in that culture, seemed unfair, if not irresponsible, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber insinuated in a response to the article.

Initially I wanted to write a counter polemic — to bring my 40 years of going to games to bear against Kang’s anecdotal experience of one game. 

But if the league, and American soccer in general, is to grow as those of us invested in its growth want it to, then it will always be somebody’s first game, and it will always be somebody’s first impression. In that regard my own familiarity with the scene, and my complacency about its conventions could be a hindrance as much as an insight. 

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Timbers fans. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

On that note, and as an aside, one of the sources Kang cited in his piece was Bill Buford’s “Among the thugs”— it has become the seminal textbook for American readers trying to understand the phenomenon of European hooliganism, but to my eyes and personal experience of the time period and place Buford describes, invoking it has always been something of a chimera whenever it appears in any discussion on hooliganism. It was a document that managed to be both a responsible journalistic document of Buford’s experiences and yet that somehow missed (by small but definite margins) what those experiences meant

In one sequence Buford gives a bravura dissection of outmoded crowd theory, by noting that most theories and accounts of crowds are written from without them by theorists — with the implication that he, embedded with the fans, is writing from within them. What Buford missed was that just because you’re standing that close, doesn’t mean that you can see what’s in front of you, or indeed trust the eyes that are looking. He never quite resolves the problem of his own agency. He ended up writing a meticulously flawed book.

Buford’s brilliant mistake has always haunted me when I write about the emerging soccer culture in the United States. I’m an immigrant to the USA, and one who has tried to do his best to work through and past the assumptions that come with that — and a big part of my education in that has been through that contact with supporters groups around the country, as they work out both the generic and local aspects of their support, amid the rapid evolution of globalizing support in their country and their cities. There are moments when it’s not helpful for me to comment.

Nonetheless, I stand by the idea that fresh eyes can sometimes see the conventions and problems of a scene. So on Sunday night, with Kang’s experience in mind, I thought about what it might be like to be at your first-ever game and to witness that Philadelphia “Build a Bonfire” tifo and hear, or have transcribed, the lyrics of the accompanying chant — a pretty vile sentiment about building a bonfire out of rivals in order to “burn the f**king lot.” Kang described his own version of such a moment in hearing “Take ‘em all” being sung by Seattle’s fans — also unraveling the origins of the chant to an English Oi band, Cock Sparrer, with the Oi factor adding a further layer of racist connotation to the chant. I could imagine a fairly damning, if two-dimensional, picture being painted of American fandom, were someone to do the same with the Philadelphia example.

And they could — I don’t want to dismiss that perspective out of hand. Nor do I want to suggest that supporters groups get to claim to be inclusive spaces just because they have a mission statement that says they are — there are times when the lack of diversity in U.S. soccer crowds brings to mind Spinal Tap being asked if they felt their music was racist in any way and them blustering:

“We say, ‘Love your brother.’ We don't say it really, but…"

“We don't literally say it. We don't literally mean it.” 

“…We’re anything but racists.”

If a person of color feels intimidated at a game, that is a problem that is not solved by just shrugging and saying “all are welcome.” On that point, regardless of his more sweeping conclusions, Kang’s comments and personal experience are reminders and challenges to all of us (and, not for nothing, but the American soccer media is overwhelmingly white men).

But I do want to make the case that in at least wrestling with the perception of themselves, in trying to forge a uniquely American voice for their support, and often being made up of people capable of looking beyond the shores of the USA for inspiration, the U.S. soccer fan generally has less of a case to answer than some of their fellow sporting peers, for now, at least. Some of the cultural skirmishes around the behavior of certain American Outlaws supporters over the last year or so, however, have hinted at some of the problems that might continue to happen as soccer support goes mainstream.

For that growth to happen healthily, it has to stand up to scrutiny from multiple perspectives, and responding with fragile indignation, however justified, probably misses an opportunity to learn. 

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly at FourFourTwo. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.

[A documentary on The Sons of Ben is available on DVD and on streaming services starting July 22nd.]