2015 is lining up to be a major year for MLS and American soccer. Many see the league’s 20th season as the most important yet; with the World Cup bump, 2 expansion teams entering, and a landmark television deal. But this year is also a turning point in my own personal soccer experience. This will be my 4th full year as a Sounders season ticket holder, but my first somewhere other than the supporters section. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago is now inevitable due to environmental and personal changes.
In the summer of 2010 I moved from Northern California to Seattle. As a long term NFL and NHL fan, I had been caught up in World Cup fever for the first time in my life. Landon’s goal to send the US through to the Round of 16 was an incredible and exciting moment, the first time I considered soccer more than a game kids play on Saturday mornings across California. The fact that this coincided with my move had a large influence on my future love of the beautiful game. I reconnected with David, a close friend from college, who had moved to Seattle a number of years earlier and caught the passion for the Sounders in the USL days. During the second half of the 2010 season, he did his best to indoctrinate me and bring me into the fold. I watched the team with passing interest, but never attempted to seek it out on my own.
That all changed in the 2011 season. David promised me beer and a good time if I would come to a match. I relented, and on a picture-perfect summer day attended my first Sounders game. The Sounders demolished the Columbus Crew 6-2, including a hat trick from Lamar Neagle. But even that incredible outpouring of goals from the home team wasn’t the most exciting part. It was the ATMOSPHERE.
David didn’t give me a lot of information about his seats, which happen to be general admission in the heart of the Emerald City Supporters’ section. I was completely blown back by the passion, sound, and organization of the people around me. The waving flags, chanting, clapping, singing, jumping, joyous exuberance on display was simply contagious. By the end of the game, my calves were sore and my voice was gone, but I knew sports would never be the same for me.
I spent the next week searching, and found a fan to sell me the remaining half of the season in the GA. I went on road trips to Portland and Vancouver, spent time on the ECS forums, and fell in love with my team. I drank champaigne from the Cascadia Cup in Vancouver, I hugged strangers when Ozzie buried Chicago at home for the Open Cup, and I lamented how close we came to overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the 2nd leg against RSL. I was officially addicted. I’ve spent every season since with the ECS in GA.
I’m not sure when my attitude began to change, because it seemed so gradual. In my first few years, I had completely drunk the Kool-Aid and asked for seconds. The supporter culture made sense to me; we have the power to affect our team’s performance. By lifting our voices in unison, by never giving up regardless of score or situation, we let our boys know we are there for them and to keep on going. I prided myself on singing loud and proud and encouraging those around me to do the same. I thought the threats from the capos regarding the self-imposed cell phone ban was warranted, and believed invitations to relocate if you didn’t agree were appropriate. More than once I was so caught up in the ideas of supporter culture, I chided those in our section who weren’t living up to expectations. But a strange thing began happening to me: the more I cared about my team, the less I was ok with the expectations of perfect support.
I read everything I could get my hands on regarding MLS and the Sounders, always hungry for more. I found /r/MLS on reddit, and my horizons widened. But the more emotionally involved I became with the Sounders players and results, the less ECS appealed to me.
When we are being beat 0-4 at home by a rival, I’m not always in the mood to be singing. Some days I show up to the stadium under the weather, or with issues in other parts of my life. I have no idea what every individual around me is going through, nor they me. Most days I’m excited to sing and clap, regardless of weather, score, or atmosphere. But am I not allowed to have a day off, and just watch my team play?
The issue I perceive with an organization like ECS is the rapid growth. Due to the success of the Sounders year after year, ECS grows tremendously in size and scope each season. There is always a fresh crop of Kool Aid drinkers. New members who are thrilled to have found something so welcoming and unique, and are proud of the way they can sing and support all game long. Members who, just like my previous self, don’t see a problem with verbally harassing those who aren’t living up to the expected code of conduct. In fact, these new members have no idea about the roots of the organization, or the men and women who have worked so hard to bring it to its incredible status and position today. In what may have been a turning point for me, I was standing next to two of ECS’s longest term members at a game last year. Both of these gentlemen were a part of the group when there were less than 50 members, in the old USL days long before I arrived on the scene. While they are not involved in the leadership, they are well known and liked by nearly all.
Seattle happened to be losing this particular game, mostly due to poor decisions and mistakes rather than simply being outplayed. The three of us were in a sour mood and not being particularly good supporters. A couple of guys in their mid-20s began harassing us, stating that wearing the ECS scarf meant something and how we were being awfully tame. It struck me that they had no idea who we were, or how the men next to me were responsible for the ability to enjoy the match in this way. Not that I believe that due to being founding members they need to be treated with any special regard, but that for all our antagonists knew we were new members. Is this the best way to welcome anyone into the group, or to teach what supporting is about? This was not the only incident in this manner I witnessed, but the one that prompted me to reflect on my own past behaviors.
Ultimately, I believe that supporters groups are overwhelmingly positive and important to soccer in this country. They bring noise, atmosphere, and unity to stadiums across the league. They excite and entice our more casual fans, lift the spirits of the players, and give the teams and league great marketing material. They took an incredibly passive fan like myself, and turned me into a fanatic who co-hosts a biweekly soccer podcast. They organize incredibly complicated, often cross-country, away trips and band together to make massive displays of tifo. And among the other groups of North America, the Emerald City Supporters stand at the peak. Which is why I will continue to be a dues paying member, even if I have chosen to experience match day in another part of our stadium.