Pondering MLS tribalism

Two seasons ago, as a neutral, I was outside of Banc of California Stadium in the tailgate area for the LAFC fans prior to an El Trafico match. When an LA Galaxy fan walked by carrying a cooler full of beer, an LAFC fan—clearly seeing his proximity to the tailgate an offense—tore the cooler apart, spilling the beers on the ground as he yelled at the suddenly meek fan. While some tried to cool down the situation, others heckled the Galaxy fan until he made a quick get away.

In Natal, Brazil, the night before the USMNT’s first World Cup game in 2014, I attended a pregame party for the team. While most of the thousands of fans in attendance wore US jerseys, there were, as always, a few fans wearing Seattle Sounders gear and chanting about their MLS side. A Portland Timbers fan, also at the party, found the intrusion of MLS politics at the party so offensive that he threw a full can of beer directly at the faces of the Sounder trio. A fight almost broke out, only calmed by the presence of cops.

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Over the years, I’ve gone to a good number of MLS and Premier League games at a number of stadia. While the relations between fans vary widely (from seeming outright hatred to tolerance), for the most part the fans keep a wide (well, sometimes not so side) berth of each other before the game and at the stadium, with the away fans generally being marched in separately with police attendance and held after the game is over, to be marched out separately again. While I sometimes find the process a bit of overkill, it tends to signify the type of tribalism that one witnesses (and which I admittedly adore) in soccer fanship.

So, what to make of the scene at the Nashville SC tailgate area Sunday night prior to their match against Austin? When I first entered, I noticed a lot of what I’ve come to expect: a huge, joyous occasion of dance, song, and alcohol induced conversation. I spot Stephen Robinson leading a crowd in chants, Soccer Moses posing for photo after photo with fans, and the folks near the La Brigada de Oro dancing to some great drum lines. I love tailgates; I love the conversation and the pregame excitement.

But, then, I also noticed a pretty large number of folks in Austin gear in the area, sharing beer and chat with the Nashville fans. To top it off, about 30 seconds after I got into the tailgate area, an Austin fan whom I had met earlier the day at a watch party for Chelsea, approached me and said, “Ah, my friend.  I’ve got a beer for you” (he was given a couple of beers from a cooler owned by one of the Nashville fans). 

I honestly didn’t know what to feel about it. On the one hand, I enjoy crowds. I love being around a wide variety of people. I relish spilling beer with friends and rivals. I despise violence and found the scenes I mentioned at the start to be juvenile and ridiculous. I can barely tolerate fans who think that they are being “authentic” by being assholes. The more people I can meet and chat with in life, the better.

On the other hand, I love tribalism. I love the feeling that once we are at the game events, we keep our distance.  We don’t share tables; we don’t share space.

Sure, it’s Austin. It’s not Cincinnati, and Nashville’s relations with all groups are going to be different. 

And, sure, I want the tribalism without the actual battles, but still, as much as I liked talking with those guys from Austin, something didn’t sit right with me.

I don’t pretend for a moment that my thoughts on this are clear or that, if they were, that they would make a good deal of sense. After all, it’s “just a game.” And there are 852 different ways to practice fanship.

That said, when soccer fanship is at its best for me, it’s always far, far more than “just a game.” Quoting many before, but nodding in the direction of legendary AFC Richmond striker Danny Rojas, “Football is life!” And life is meaningful, with something at stake. 

I don’t hate anyone, and anyone who knows me would laugh at the idea of me every being in any kind of brawl, but I wonder about the costs and benefits of taming or muting those moments of tribalism. 

As I’ve said, I don’t have an answer here, just a few misgivings, a little bit of unease.

Like a lot of my quandaries, maybe it’s worth thinking about. Maybe decidedly not so.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent Broadway Sports Media as a whole.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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