We sing for you
We love you so
And we will follow you wherever you may go
We are the blue! We are the green!
We had traveled more than 5,500 miles between the two of us, we had walked for miles, drank more than our fair share of Dos Equis and Mezcal, jumped up and down and sang exuberantly ‘til our voices were sore and nearly gone, sweated out most of the alcohol because we were at over 7,000 feet of elevation, and then we lost. The details of the game mostly elude me now, but I know that for a brief few moments the Seattle Sounders were ahead on the aggregate goal count over the mighty Club América, beating the giants of CONCACAF in their national Estadio Azteca.
The massive 98,500 seat stadium was only a fraction full, but the cheers of the 120+ traveling Sounders supporters, sequestered behind barbed wire fencing and riot police, were heard. They were heard at the old American Legion Post in Mexico City at the pre-func, heard throughout the Metro de la Ciudad de México during the ‘march to the match,’ heard during pre-game, 90 minutes + stoppage, and post-game. The chants didn’t end even during the riot-police escorted exit from the stadium and the ensuing paddy-wagon ride, sans handcuffs, fortunately.
I was lucky enough to do a lot of traveling throughout college as part of the Washington Husky Marching Band, participating in various events or following the Washington Huskies football or basketball teams to games and tournaments. Some of the longer trips had time built in to actually see the sights and get to know the area, but often the shorter trips were business-like affairs, with as little time on the ground as possible. Since then, I’ve tried to build my travel experiences around the more meaningful interactions with a place and people, even if many of the trips are still centered around getting to a Seattle Mariners game or Sounders FC match in a new city or country. Regardless of the length of the trip or the location of an away game, I’ve always coveted the special bond that forms between fans of a common team on the road, and especially when traveling as part of an organized supporters’ group.
My travel partner for the CONCACAF Quarterfinal matchup in Mexico City was my girlfriend Julia, a ‘converted’ soccer and Sounders FC supporter. We went into the trip having neither been to Mexico City before and knowing only introductory Spanish. For months we had expected to have an amazing trip together, but had greatly underestimated how much the rest of the Emerald City Supporters – or ECS, the Sounders main supporters’ group – and the subgroup La Barra Fuerza Verde, would enhance the experience.
Regardless of the length of the trip or the location of an away game, I’ve always coveted the special bond that forms between fans of a common team on the road
A few months prior to the trip, a fellow ECS member had invited me to a Facebook group to plan elements of the trip and share our mutual travel plans. I’ve traveled with ECS occasionally for a few huge games in Vancouver and Portland, and was used to perusing forums or the pre-game email for drinking locations. But seeing the Facebook group form and everyone excitedly sharing their hotel location and sightseeing ideas on the shared map was amping me up for this trip to new levels. Friendships were already being formed based on arrival date – a small group took over a resort town for the few days prior to the game – and Julia and I even recognized some folks we had met at a Sounders away match against NYCFC the year earlier whom we were eager to share a beer with again if our paths crossed.
When Julia and I met up at our layover location in Dallas and started looking for a place to get a celebratory drink, we began seeing some fellow rave green and black clad travelers. We joined their circle, and were warmly welcomed right away. Obviously, the shared interest of grabbing drinks didn’t hurt matters in the slightest. As we talked over beers and margaritas, our mutual interests won out over any awkwardness and we shared plans and made even more that overlapped.
It’s ironic that as I write this post focusing on the experience of supporters coming together based on the shared love of their team, there’s a veritable firestorm on social media over an extremely sloppy and misinformed New York Times article declaring that very type of connection lacking in MLS, especially between Latino and White supporters. The MLS Commissioner, Don Garber, has since spoken out quite harshly against the accusations in the article at a summit in Seattle. I would be remiss to not add my own admonition of the author’s conclusions based on my experiences with ECS as an organization and other MLS supporters’ groups as well on a more casual level.
As it turns out, most of the fellow supporters we were drinking with in Dallas are members or leaders of the ECS subgroup La Barra Fuerza Verde, and two were responsible for planning the post-match party in Mexico City for the entire traveling group. Some had also been to Mexico City before, and were more than willing to give suggestions and tips for navigating the city.
By the time we paid our bills, Julia and I had secured a ride to the hotel from the airport, arranged through one of the other ECS family members that lived in the city, and had at least a few interested parties in our first food stop after we settled in: churros dipped in Mexican chocolate.
One long ‘March to the Match’
The ‘march to the match’ that included the metro ride was filled with somewhat spontaneous bouts of cheering, singing, and scarf-raising. The closer we got to the stadium the more glances we got from the crowds, and the more Club América supporters we encountered. Occasionally, we’d pass a supporter wearing a kit from another team the Sounders have played in the CONCACAF Champions League in the past few years, and I had to wonder ‘do they remember us? Were they there to see the Sounders in person?’
— ECS Travel Monkeys (@ECSTravelMonkey) March 3, 2016
That feeling of being an away supporter in ‘hostile territory’ is exhilarating, and something I became familiar and enamored with through years of traveling to the most hostile of territories as a Washington Husky fan: Eugene and the University of Oregon. There’s a thickness of skin and hubris I consider a requirement to get the most out of the experience. It definitely depends on the city and the fans, but it’s helpful when the stakes are high or the rivalries are fierce.
Even now when I travel for Husky games, there’s an unwritten rule that you’ll greet any other fan wandering around the city in the days before the game who’s wearing purple with a knowing ‘Go Dawgs,’ as if to say ‘We’re in this together.’ Traveling as part of an organized supporters’ group enhances the potential for close bonds to form between fans; everyone has a common knowledge of the support that’s expected, and a shared experience of adversity on which to build memories.
Traveling as part of an organized supporters’ group enhances the potential for close bonds to form between fans; everyone has a common knowledge of the support that’s expected, and a shared experience of adversity on which to build memories.
Hubris is not lacking with Sounders fans of course; we know we’re the attendance envy in MLS and beyond, regularly ranking in the top 30 for average attendance in the world; aside from an MLS cup, we’ve had some great success on the field as well. Hubris is probably the thing other MLS fans hate about Seattle most, and they love to harp about our ‘fake and plastic fans’ that are somehow produced by the Front Office. Walking down to the entrance of Estadio Azteca, surrounded by the bright yellow supporters looking on, that hubris and the grit that comes along with it was helpful.
Standing in the upper reaches of Estadio Azteca, already tired from the walk up the ramps pre-match, one of the leaders of the traveling supporters yelled out for people to say how far they traveled to get to the match. Hailing from New York, Julia was deemed to have come the furthest (relative to Seattle) and was rewarded with an ECS flag passed up over the rows. Some of our friends from the airport looked on approvingly, and the moment felt to me like a sweet affirmation of the efforts we had gone through to plan the trip and make it actually happen.
Our plan was always to take the metro back to our post-match party location after waiting in the stands for about 20 minutes to let the home crowd disperse. At some point during the game, we were told that security had approached the ECS travel leaders and told them that this just wouldn’t be a good idea, and that they’d arrange something. It turns out that that ‘something’ was a three-deep line of riot police on each side as they paraded us down the ramps of the stadium and towards our set of paddy-wagons.
Had we been traveling alone, we likely would have left the stadium in silence.
As we descended, still singing and chanting proudly despite the defeat, Club América supporters looked on through 10-foot tall locked gates, some jeering but mostly throwing friendly banter our way. Had we been traveling alone, we likely would have left the stadium in silence. But the culture of support as part of the ECS kept our heads up on the way out. These memories will add to that grit required on future trips, and I know there will be a lasting feeling of camaraderie among those in this particular group because of the unbelievable circumstances.
— ECS Travel Monkeys (@ECSTravelMonkey) March 3, 2016
Once in the police buses, the guards with their riot shields and batons actually rode along with us, doors open, speeding through the streets over curbs and around traffic. It was an absolute whirlwind. A mix of catching eyes with the people nearby and laughing from disbelief in the situation, chanting because, well, what else would we do, and exhaustion setting in from the giant stadium Coronas wearing off. For a fuller account of the trip, game, and police escort I’ll have to point you to two fellow ECS member’s postings. One is worth the read simply for another view of the police escort with photos and videos and the other is in the Seattle PI; it does a great job recounting the service opportunity the Sounders front office put together with a local community for the traveling fans.
The Post-Match Party & Lasting Memories
The post-match party itself was epic, and lived up to the hype from the organizing Barra Fuerza Verde leaders we had met back in the Dallas airport before our inbound flight. A mariachi band serenaded us for what felt like hours, and we were taught limited refrains in Spanish by some of our fellow ECS members. Much tequila was consumed, and stories of past trips and dreams for the future were abundant. At the end of the night, the core group of folks we had our first drink with back in the Dallas airport got together for some damn fine tequila, and we were taught about and shared the traditional sangrita chaser.
To our delight, we also did end up running into the couple that we had met in the Sounders supporters’ bar in NYC, Carlow East, the year before. Their friendly jabs at Julia and me to progress our relationship and ‘live in the same state already’ makes them feel like family more than anything else, even though we’ve only shared beers and a Sounders match a couple of times. It seems unlikely that we would have built such rapport in that amount of time had we met in Seattle prior to a game, if we even met at all.
When we left the post-match party, we were warned that we might want to take an Uber because the area was kind of rough after dark. By then we had done our fair share of walking through the city and even survived the metro during rush hour, albeit barely – pro-tip: they reserve the first few cars for women only during rush hour, and for good reason. We decided to ‘risk’ the walk back to the hotel. Truthfully it was painless, but we ended up sharing the walk most of the way back with two other ECS members from somewhere along the East Coast. Regaling each other with the stories we already knew so well from the trip helped immortalize the experiences of the day.
On the Away Fan Experience
Of course, I’ve made new friends at matches and other sporting events in Seattle, but it’s almost never the same level of bond that’s possible during an away trip to support your hometown guys or gals. Julia and I were quickly and effortlessly enveloped in the supporters’ group culture — and I truly think that anyone else who even just walked up and said hello would have been afforded the same opportunity — simply for sharing love for the Sounders and making the effort to travel. The entry fee to this experience was essentially the ticket to Mexico City and the game ticket (which came out to about 7 USD, remarkably). Even now, I think we could easily reach out to anyone we met on the trip, and they’d happily join us for a beer pre-match in Seattle or anywhere else we were traveling.
There’s something about that grit, the experience of having to band together and form a cohesive group while supporting against those who are many more in number to you, that allows for a deeper experience.
There’s something about that grit, the experience of having to band together and form a cohesive group while supporting against those who are many more in number to you, that allows for a deeper experience. It’s also not an experience easily found in American professional sports outside of soccer. That’s the nature of an established supporters’ group, and why traveling as part of one is not an experience to be missed. Certainly, many a friendship has been formed during away trips for supporters of any number of sports and teams. As I mentioned before, I also had similar experiences traveling to games while in my college band because of that same level of organization and culture of support, and in a smaller sense as a traveling fan since college as well. I’ve met some incredible people while traveling to Husky games and come away with fantastic stories, but the lifelong bonds formed on trips with my bandmates will always be at the forefront.
As soccer and the supporters’ culture grows in the American sport scene, there are pockets of traveling fan groups emulating their home crowd atmosphere on the road increasingly each season. Surely, traveling fans of the Red Sox are bound to band together to a degree and probably share beers and cheers with each other when in the Bronx. Similarly, traveling to away Seattle Seahawks games has gotten more popular as prices for the games soar in Seattle. As a result, it’s not uncommon to hear those away fans making noise to distract the home team’s offense, or to hear them chanting ‘SEA – HAWKS’ during the postgame show on TV.
Still, the effect of being an away fan is amplified when traveling as part of an organized supporters’ group for a few reasons.
- First, the presence of an already formed and established supporters’ group is usually accompanied by a culture of support. That might seem obvious, but the culture goes well beyond the actual cheering in the stands, and is what made it so easy for Julia and me to be welcomed to the group in Mexico City. We had preexisting knowledge about what to expect from the supporters’ group, an idea of the group’s style and ethos. There was an unspoken common ground between those of us traveling under the banner of ECS, and it made it all the easier to form bonds with the other folks on the trip.
- Second, ‘formal’ supporters’ groups are more organized. They’re far more likely to have tools like a forum or a Facebook group to organize the trip and supporters’ experience. They often act as an advocate for the supporters and are sometimes in direct communication with away stadium staff to allow for exceptions to rules. And they get tickets together, which is clearly important. When fans are isolated or feel unique in their support, they’re less likely to partake full-heartedly. And there’s nothing like cementing a new friendship over spilt beer from an epic goal celebration or a meaningful pat on the back after a stinging loss.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of groups that make it a point to support each other just as much as we support the team on the field.
The third and most intangible factor of being an away fan with an organized supporters’ group is also the most critical. Whether on the march to the match in Mexico City, or just trying to use the restroom safely in Autzen Stadium when the Huskies were playing the Ducks, I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of groups that make it a point to support each other just as much as we support the team on the field. That feeling is what truly drives me to look forward to that next big trip, the next time I get to make dozens of new friends over a weekend and reconnect with others. I’m sure I’ll tell the story of Mexico City then, and if I’m lucky, I’ll come away with another from wherever we may go.