American Outcasts

American Outcasts

When YouGov and the Upshot team at The New York Times polled people around the world to find out which World Cup soccer team they most wanted to lose, it was no surprise that the United States came out on top. For decades, foreigners have taken comfort in doing at least one thing better than those darned Americans. But the poll still had a shocker in store: the United States was the most hated team in the United States.

It’s not often that one can be a rebel of sorts by supporting one’s own country, but this is the case for the American soccer fan. Despite reaching the semifinal in the first World Cup ever, back in 1930, American soccer virtually disappeared from the global stage — aside from a stunning upset of England in 1950 — until 1990.

Not surprisingly, given that there were precious few accomplishments for supporters to get excited about, the fan base at that time was extremely small. The United States would often play in front of  a small audience in the inglorious confines of college stadiums. If a large, enthusiastic crowd showed up, it was usually immigrants in support of a rival.

Many elements contributed to this situation, including the numerous homegrown sports competing for the attention of the American fan. There was also a regionalism to the American sporting profile that set people up to have pride in a particular city, rather than an entire nation; the latter was reserved for the Olympics. Even those who loved the sport of soccer itself found it easier to follow other teams that had more regular media coverage.

Technology and the global economy helped to change this. Via the Internet, American fans of soccer and their national team began to exchange information on message boards, watch live streams of faraway games even when major networks refused to air them, and share clips of tricks and goals. Supporters working overseas shared information about Americans playing abroad. These virtual connections helped create a new community of enthusiastic supporters.

Recently, that online world has expanded into the real world. Fans now plan to travel for national team games, meet up for viewing parties, and generally support their national squad the way other countries have for decades upon decades.

One of the most popular supporters’ groups, the American Outlaws, has grown exponentially in part by harnessing some of the inherent regional pride of people in the United States. Indeed, some of the most fervent fans are those of Major League Soccer teams in relatively small markets like Portland and Seattle. Outlaws chapters represent these cities, or even specific neighborhoods. Fans are thus gathered together in a common cause without compromising their individual identity.

Part of the appeal is that this American supporter movement is still a work in progress, with a long way to go before it ever reaches the fan frenzy in other countries. Anyone can get in on the ground floor, and doing so offers the chance to do something a little special or different. By contrast, during the World Cup in 2006, the streets of even large cities in Germany, the host country, were deserted while the majority of the population sat inside, watching the games.

But fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), to give its full title, are still a minority in their own land. Mexico, the team’s longtime CONCACAF rival, schedules matches regularly on American soil. El Tri plays in some of the nation’s biggest stadiums, which regularly fill with their fervent followers. In many ways, fans of the USMNT are second-class citizens in their own country, consigned to smaller venues with less commercial promotion. Yet even among what is arguably the country’s most numerous group of supporters, American fandom has made inroads; some people have been sporting a hybrid USA/Mexico jersey to represent support for both squads.

There are even the obligatory villains for the USMNT’s iconoclastic fans to rail against and despise; they’re just not always fans of neighboring countries’ teams. Rather, it’s Eurosnobs, naysayers and clueless sports pundits of an earlier generation who fuel outrage about how American soccer isn’t getting its due. If anything, the American soccer fan movement is overdue, and it’s finally on the way.