TULSA, Okla. – Just a few years ago, fans in cities throughout the United States were clamoring for a professional team to call their own. Thanks to the proliferation of USL organizations across the United States and Canada over the past few years, thriving clubs have taken root in cities like Colorado Springs, Cincinnati and Louisville, to name a few.
Soccer and support go hand-in-hand, and the USL’s growth, coupled with the league’s regional structure and emphasis on fomenting regional rivalries, has also cultivated unique groups of supporters. These supporter groups, in addition to vehemently supporting their respective clubs, have prioritized both the promotion of the game and a respected rapport among one another.
The use of social media to help facilitate interaction between both clubs and supporters, tailgating harmoniously with rival fan groups, and a good relationship with the club’s front office are all hallmarks of these distinct supporters’ groups. That is not to say that every supporters group within the league adheres to these tenets uniformly. Each is a wholly individual entity, but for many groups, these are defining characteristics of supporter’s experience in the USL.
“For so many years soccer has been neglected, especially in smaller markets like Tulsa or Louisville, so there is an understanding that for this to be able to be maintained or to grow even, that we’re all on the same team, almost, the American soccer team, to make sure that soccer grows in popularity,” said Roustabouts President Zach Easdon.
Photo courtesy Rich Crimi / Tulsa Roughnecks FC
“Football without the fans is nothing.” The renowned quote, attributed to the legendary Celtic and Scotland manager Jock Stein, has been a vociferous cry from stands and terraces across the globe long before Celtic revealed a statue of Stein with the adage chiseled into its base. In many leagues across the world, the saying usually refers to a distinct disconnect between clubs and their fans, but not in the USL, where supporters feel like they are not only supporters of their individual teams, but of the league and the sport as well.
From coast-to-coast, supporters across the league largely share similar feelings on what makes support within the USL distinct.
“When people are traveling hundreds of miles to see guys that aren’t getting paid as much, or much more than many of us who are paying to see the game, we’re all in it together,” said Red Army President Richard Hayes. “The Kickers and the Red Army are a family, but we’re all a bigger extended family within the league, and I don’t get that as much from higher leagues.”
“I think it’s a fans’ league. The USL can’t rely on TV ratings, or the real high advertising dollars, so I think the USL embraces fans, supporters’ culture, and really goes out of its way to acknowledge what we do,” said Matthew Bird, a member of the St. Louligans. “I find that most of the time if you’re an away fan making the effort to drive six hours, the home fans are more than hospitable. I think people in America, with such large distances, they appreciate the effort. I think while supporting your club is very tribal, I think that supporting the league is quite tribal too. We all support these individual teams, but we are all part of the greater club.”
The USL has existed for more than two decades, but with the advent of the social media age, fans have never been more connected to their clubs and each other. The spread of social media as a tool to interact and network with clubs, players and other fans, support within the USL is more visible and viable than ever. The use of social media is what has helped spur on the uncommon engagement between supporters’ groups in tailgates and stands each and every weekend over the past few years. It is something that many supporters acknowledge as something vastly different from other professional leagues elsewhere.
“The social media and online phenomenon has really made coordination between all of our groups, and the friendliness, a lot easier,” said Louisville Coopers President Ken Luther. “Twenty years ago, you probably wouldn’t be singing the same tune.
“We reached out at the beginning of the season to The Pride, and I exchanged emails with their president. Then we do it through social media. We coordinate where they’re going to tailgate, then we’ll link up with them and tailgate with them. There is a lot of banter back and forth using the same medium, but it’s all in fun. We’re gonna drink a couple beers before the game, hang out and be friends, and then we are going to hate each other for 90 minutes and then go back to being friends.”
Photo courtesy Louisville City FC
Another aspect of USL support that is somewhat of a growing tradition is the exchanging of gifts between supporters’ groups, especially amongst traveling support. Scarf-swapping is nothing new when it comes to supporter interaction across the world, but the exchanging of regional beers and other local rarities as gifts during tailgates is something that has both helped forge a bond between many supporters’ groups, and helped cement the practice as something special between fans of USL clubs.
“When we go to St. Louis, they will share some of their beer with us,” said Luther. “Some of the stuff that they’re proud of. When they come here, they come to our brewery that brews a lot of good beer, so we share some of our beer. We’ve been known to bring bottles of bourbon as friendship gifts, and we also do scarf trades.”
“We usually reach out to other supporter groups like The Zoo in Kansas City, or the St. Louligans in St. Louis, and ask if we can join their tailgate,” said Easdon. “We usually bring some Marshall’s or some Tulsa beer and some scarves to exchange.”
The USL’s expansion has been instrumental in the development of fandom in the league’s cities. The league’s focus on building regional rivalries has also had a profound effect on stimulating interaction between supporters’ groups, and ultimately promoting conviviality between fans.
“I think rivalries are driven by geography, and when you have regional rivalries, like the ones that are starting to appear, it makes it a lot more fun when you can be a traveling group and go to your rival’s stadium, and vice-versa,” said Luther. “Trying to manufacture a rivalry where people dislike you probably takes years, like the Hatfields and McCoys, so maybe in 20 years from now the rivalries will be a different story, but we’re all kind of all on the same footing because the USL expanded so quickly.
Photo courtesy Alena Schuckmann / Louisville City FC
“On Saturday night, a busload of Louligans showed up at Slugger Field, and it was awesome. We’re going to do the same thing to them when we play them away. Cincinnati is only an hour and 15 minutes away, and we showed up with 700-1,000 fans, and they’re going to do the same thing to us when they come here. They may even bring more. The traveling distance is what is so key.”
“Last year, for one of the playoff games, a crew of ours went down [to Harrisburg], and through social media, through Facebook mainly, they talked to the fans and said, ‘hey, is it all right if we come by and say hi before the game?’” said Hayes. “Friends before and friends after, but enemies during the 90, and they said, ‘absolutely, come on by,’ so we had that connection. This year I reached out to their people on Facebook and when we pulled up to their tailgate, everybody came up and introduced themselves. There was the usual teasing back and forth, but beers were shared, food was shared, and we had a good time. They even came over at halftime and talked and said, ‘you need to meet this guy. He wasn’t at the tailgate.’ Then the same thing happened when Harrisburg played here.”
That is not to say that every rivalry or tailgate is overtly friendly affair. Some rivalries, like the Black-Gold Derby between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, carry years of scorn and contention between cities that bleeds over into soccer, but the rapport among supporters still carries an air of respect and camaraderie, unlike other heated and divisive rivalries throughout the world.
“OKC-Tulsa one is mostly friendly, but there are those few outsiders that try to make it more of a European feeling,” said Easdon. “There is a mutual agreement that we’re out there to have fun, and that something that would cross the line, like fighting, is not tolerated by either one of the supporters’ groups. That stems from the history of the two cities. When you go back, Tulsa and Oklahoma City have always competed to be the big city in Oklahoma. Within the past 10 years, maybe more, Oklahoma City has been able to bring in the bigger draws, like the [NBA’s] Thunder, so sports has always been something that Oklahoma City and Tulsa have always fought at, but having the Energy and the Roughnecks in the same league, it has really sparked something new that we haven’t seen for a while.
Photo courtesy Rich Crimi / Tulsa Roughnecks FC
“Last year we showed that we could take 60 people to Oklahoma City. We used a bus, and so we went to our front office and were able to pay for a bus through our membership cost. We got a discount through their [the Roughnecks] bus company, but we paid for it, and got 60 people to Oklahoma City. We set up our own tailgate when we go to Oklahoma City. We usually have enough people to do our own thing, so we don’t have to jump in with The Grid. It is definitely different from all of the other groups in the league.”
The distinctive relationships forged by supporters’ groups during tailgates each week is due to many factors, but arguably the most important is a solid connection and level of cooperation with individual club’s front offices. Without the blessings of the club, many supporters would lack designated tailgating space and want for designated tickets to away matches. The growing level of support the league has garnered over the years, including the propagation of dynamic supporters’ groups has been assisted by front offices from across the league, and has helped supporter culture within the league flourish.
“We do have a great relationship with the front office, I’ve got to be honest,” said Bird. “Jeremy Alumbaugh, the GM, has got all of our phone numbers, he knows all of us by name, he comes and hangs out with us sometimes before and after games, and he allows us to come to training and talk with him and the players. The access we’ve got is superb.
“Sometimes they will help facilitate buses for us. They paid for the bus to go to Oklahoma City this year. It was the first real away game we could go to. We didn’t have a game at home for five weeks, because of the flood, and they wanted us there, so they paid for a bus to get us to Oklahoma City and back. I can’t complain at all with what the front office does. They’re open and honest and transparent. Again, that works both ways. I think that how we conduct ourselves in the stands is a reflection of that. We don’t want to let them down either.”
Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
“We have a very good relationship with our front office,” said Luther. “Sometimes we disagree on things. That’s natural. I think most of the big supporters’ groups that you see have good relationships with their front offices. We both recognize that it is a give-and-take relationship, and that we both need each other to coordinate going to opposing stadiums, or what we even can do in our own stadium. We recognize that, and we’re professional about it. It’s all about having fun, supporting the team, and being safe about it.”
As the USL continues to expand and grow, so does support for the game and the league. The past few years have seen a wave of supporters who have taken to what the league has to offer and helped create a vibrant and distinguishable fan base. For many, the atmosphere surrounding support around the USL, especially in terms of growing regional rivalries, is something that offers supporters’ groups a chance to foster relationships with other fans and celebrate the game.
Given the incredible growth of the league, rivalries and supporters over the past few years, the future looks promising for everyone involved.
“We’ve got rivalries with Cincinnati, Louisville, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and now Swope Park,” said Bird. “We’ve got five teams that we can go watch our team away within driving distance. We have potentially more games in USL than we ever will in MLS. I am happy with where we’re at, and I am happy with what we’re doing. I’ve seen more soccer now than I ever did in England. I do think the regional rivalries is one of the best things that USL is doing right now, because soccer is built on rivalries. Me personally, I love it.”