Soccer is a community sport. It makes and claims its own unique culture while simultaneously embracing and enriching the communities around it. Sprouting from the surrounding communities are supporters groups composed of an eclectic bunch of enthusiasts drawn from far and wide to share in a common experience for 90-plus minutes. There are no strangers here. Though they may scatter soon after the final whistle, each supporter is an integral piece of a network which, transcending social and economic status, race, creed, country of origin, etc., enriches both the club and the game.
Through highs and lows, wins and losses, sunshine and snow, they stand and sing. Their voices and influence carry on after the final whistle and can be heard well outside the confines of the stadium. With each song sung, each flag waved, the supporters become part of the fabric of the club and the club becomes a growing, evolving community. Their enthusiasm hooks people, both casual onlookers and complete newcomers. It illustrates to all that soccer is more than a game. It worked on me.
I always liked soccer, but didn’t really become a fan until the USWNT’s dramatic World Cup win in 1999. I remember sitting on the floor, my face just feet from the screen of the tube TV the entire game, jumping up when it went to the shootout. I was ten. My uncle later took me to a Minnesota Thunder game. My cousin grew bored long before the half, but we spent the following weeks chasing a soccer ball around the yard. I soon found out I couldn’t play (knee surgeons banned me from contact sports) so I watched every game I could find on network TV, transfixed by Brazil’s ballet-like World Cup performances accompanied by the sounds vuvuzelas, awed by the mournful renditions of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ during the Merseyside Derby. Who were these people in the stands?
My first Minnesota United FC game served as a crash course in soccer fandom. After blindly purchasing the cheapest tickets available for a friendly against Swansea in 2014, I found myself at the south end of the National Sports Center in Blaine, smack in the middle of a standing, chanting, blue-smoke popping crowd of people known as the Dark Clouds. While I only vaguely remember our two goals (to Swansea’s 0! Yeah, yeah, it was their B-squad, but it was a shutout against an EPL team nonetheless), I vividly remember the celebrations behind the net. These people around me weren’t just making noise: they were interacting with the players and officials, spurring the players onward, and the players were waving to them for more. After reliving that night in my head for a few weeks, I put a deposit down for the 2015 season. For two seasons I sat in the main stand, my attention equally divided between the players on the field and the supporters on the other side.
This year I joined them. I could not spend the Loons’ inaugural MLS season in a chair. I wanted to stand with these crazy people who drew me into the local game. I was a little intimidated as I joined their wet and frozen ranks for the first game, and even more so at the next match when it was warm enough that we could all actually show our faces. So it was a pleasant surprise when I was welcomed in by a group of friends I never knew I had. Each horrendous loss and each glorious rendition of ‘Wonderwall’ cements our bond. The bleachers behind the net have become our home away from home. And our family grows everywhere we go.
Riding mass transit to matches allows me to interact with a diverse mix of people who are like me three years ago. While they know a little about European football through Premier League broadcasts and occasional American dominance in World Cup games, the local game is foreign to them. Early in the season, my friend and I were standing outside of Rosedale waiting for the bus that would take us to the Green Line. We both sported Dark Clouds scarves over our t-shirts and shorts. A woman passing by noticed us and said to the man accompanying her, “It’s 80 degrees and sunny! Why in the world are those two wearing scarves?” We heard his reply: “Oh, they must be going to the soccer. They wave them or something” (No, that’s not a typo – he actually said the soccer). We hear similar comments every match, but as the season draws on, people are becoming less confused and more curious.
A couple months ago, at the Midway bus stop, just feet from the famed Big Top parking lot, we were approached by a gentleman who saw our Dark Clouds scarves and my Loon cap. “I don’t know a thing about soccer and I didn’t even realize anyone played seriously in Minnesota,” he said. “But you people in those scarves, yelling and chanting through the whole game and beating drums, you make it fun to watch. Keep it up. I’m excited to welcome you all to Midway.”
After the Vancouver match, on a bus crowded with United fans, 50s car enthusiasts and local commuters, I found myself standing between a group of fellow fans and a young woman in hijab carrying groceries for Eid. It was a chatty crowd thanks to the Loons’ second half comeback to draw the game. The young woman told us she had heard mixed reviews about the team and asked how we felt about the results so far. She was surprised when we all said in unison that we were having fun. “Even when they lose horribly or tie?” she asked. A woman seated in a jump seat next to me pointed to my scarf and said, “with those people jumping and screaming the whole game, it is impossible not to have fun.” Before picking up her grocery bag and getting off the bus, the curious woman asked us how she could buy tickets to a match.
These were pivotal moments for me as a supporter for our local club and the global game. What we do in the stands showcases the sport to a whole new group of prospective fans, presenting match day not as a singular event but as an experience. Soccer fandom is not about the results: it is about faith, resilience, and a sense of togetherness that continues after the final whistle. The club is our community, the stands our home, the region our recruiting ground.
Though we are a paltry few in comparison to the global football community, we have a unique opportunity to bring a close-knit community to the big leagues and define Minnesota’s voice in the world’s game. We have come a long way, but we still have work to do.
In this series I will be presenting stories of fans who contribute to the soccer experience, for our home clubs and others. We will explore where we have come from as Supporters and where we go from here.