Scarves Up: MNUFC’s SGs Reflect On Lessons Learned And Future Growth

At TCF Bank Stadium, sections 123 – 127 are occupied by a number of boisterous supporters who come together on match day with the common goal of making noise for the Loons. While all share an allegiance to Minnesota United FC, each individual group holds its own differing methods and tones of support. Each has its own roots, its own history, and its own mission.

I set out this offseason to find out what sets each of these supporters groups apart, and what brings them all together.  I asked leading members of each of the five largest, most visible groups (Dark Clouds, True North Elite, Pioneers, Mill City Ultras, and Fists of the North Star) to describe their identity and their growth, to reflect on MNUFC’s inaugural season, and to preview their plans for 2018 and the move to Allianz Field. Because the larger supporters groups face a different narrative than the smaller groups which accent them, they also face different questions. Thus, I have divided the finished product into two parts: The Originals and the Newcomers. So let’s begin where it all began.

The Originals

Responding on behalf of the Dark Clouds is president Abe Opoti and for True North Elite, co-chair (Front Office and Media Communications) James Norungolo.

What should the casual fan know about your group? What sets you apart from the other Minnesota supporters groups?

Dark Clouds: The Dark Clouds are a group of people who love soccer as much as they love the community around it. Being a part of something fun that also makes a difference in the community, while chilling with a bunch of fun people, is a huge draw for folks.
The Dark Clouds have traditionally been fairly snarky in their heckling, trying to be clever whenever possible. That and a love of chants/songs drawn from unique sources for inspiration, often to the chagrin and befuddlement of those hearing the new chant for the first time, but we keep it fun while being loud.

True North Elite: True North Elite was founded in 2015 and in just a short time has grown to over 150 members. We pride ourselves on bringing the noise to every match day and on being good citizens in our communities. We bring maximum passion to our support of the Club. We want our players to know we’ve got their backs, and we want the opposition to know we’re never letting up. If you ask our members what it feels like to be TNE, a lot of them will tell you it feels like family. We enjoy supporting the team here at home, at watch parties, and on road trips. And we are active in supporting our communities. Our Service and Volunteer Arm, Keepers of The North, plans events throughout the year, working with local organizations, particularly in the neighborhoods around our soon to be new home, Allianz Field.

The casual fan should know that we have an incredible amount of fun. We’re boisterous. We’re (at times) profane. We welcome anybody that shares that enthusiasm and wants to be part of what we do. Come up and talk to one of us, and we’ll be happy to get you involved.

Did you have to make any major changes (e.g., in organization/structure, methods of support, etc.) to adapt to MLS? Were you successful?

DC: MLS has brought new people, some of whom are coming from other sports where how you act in the stands is not enforced particularly well within a code of conduct, which results in a “whatever goes” atmosphere. That will not be the case this season, and for the seasons to come, as we have redone our code of conduct and are doing supporter-staffed Conduct Review Boards, drawn from multiple SGs and fully anonymous, to review any incidents/conduct violations, with the goal of making it clear that “whatever goes’ has no home in The Wonderwall.

I know that working on clarifying the split and differences between the General Benefit Corporation (GBC, the operating body under which all the affiliate sub-groups are a part) and the individual supporters groups is important. It has caused a lot of confusion in the past, and working within that framework is something that goes into being in one of the affiliate supporters groups. The short version of the split is that we need more committees that function like tifo and travel do; committees staffed by supporters from all affiliate SGs that do work on the behalf of the whole section and not just their individual SGs. We are forming those committees in order to stave off the burnout that happens when one or two people have the weight of the whole section upon them and to ensure that we are developing more and more amazing people to lead our section’s growth.

TNE: Before the first season in MLS we established a Board of Directors to help manage our growth and formalize key areas such as Match Day, Membership, Social Media, Communication, and Merchandise. Certainly all the SGs had to make adjustments to being in a completely new and much larger stadium. One major change has been that our March To The Match has become a much larger thing. At our previous home (National Sports Center in Blaine) there might be some nights when we marched with maybe 20-30 TNE members. We saw massive growth in the numbers marching together for many of our home matches last year. We feel the first year was pretty successful. We grew while maintaining the things that make us TNE. Having one year of experience in MLS and in our current stadium should helps us be even better this year.

What changes did you notice in the supporters group through the transition? (e.g., level of enthusiasm, numbers, public notice)

DC: Our numbers have rightfully exploded. That comes as no real surprise, but it is awesome going from a situation in which many people knew most of the faces around them to there being too many people to know them all. I love watching this supporter community grow, and I especially love the increase in loudness of the section, along with how amazing it sounds when that many people sing “Wonderwall” when the Loons pick up three points.

I am amazed at the explosion of various SGs on twitter at least, showing just how funny the people are who support MNUFC, and I look forward to seeing that translate into an even more vibrant and lively supporters section at TCF and Allianz Field afterwards. More and more people are saying they want to be a part of our efforts, in all aspects, and it is refreshing and encouraging to know that we’re doing the right things.

TNE: I’d say that enthusiasm and numbers have never been higher. The casual fan taking in a match for the first time can’t help but notice what all the SGs bring to the match day experience. We hear all the time the impact we make on fans around the stadium. What was really cool as we moved through the year was seeing attendances steadily increase match to match. Sellouts at the close of the year, and more and more sections of the stadium getting caught up in what all of the SGs were doing. Singing Wonderwall with 22,000 of your closest friends is pretty cool. So, yeah, I think people are noticing.

Highlights from 2017? (I also asked for lowlights, but we’re feeling positive today)

On this question, DC and TNE agreed: The ‘magic’ of the ‘Snowpener’, then tailgating with Chicago Fire’s Section 8 before the first away win and drowning out the chants of the home side through the full 90 minutes. Plus:

DC: Special mention to the Dark Clouds merch crew and the “You Know Nothing Grant Wahl” scarf, for which Mr. Wahl was a great sport in response to seeing it. Off the pitch, seeing the volunteer hours exceed the previous year’s, buying four tables at The Sanneh Foundation’s annual Gala 4 Goals fundraiser and being a part of their record-breaking fundraising, all of the amazing photos of Keepers of the North and Silver Lining doing great work in the community. Too many things to name make me smile about the wonderful people who make up our section on matchday, and I love that we are out there working to make our world a better place.

TNE: Miguel Ibarra’s headed goal, in front of the Supporters, to beat Colorado for our second win in the League. After that match ended Ibarra and Justin Davis climbed into the TNE section and chugged cider and beer with us. You have to know that these are two players that made the jump from the NASL days to MLS, and that this tradition, of the players sharing our drinks and celebrating together after a big win, was something from the NASL days. To carry that over into the new League, in a new stadium, on a much larger scale, was pretty cool.

What lessons did you come away with at the end of the season?

DC: There is much more work to be done, and the only way it will happen is by bringing people together and getting them to see that the supporters groups aren’t as different as we think we are, that no one’s out to get them because when it comes down to it we’re all here to support the Loons and have fun with our friends. Also, beware of beers handed to you without context while on the capo stand, as you might unwittingly end up in a Surly ad. Haha!

TNE: In a much bigger section, new members all around and even newer SGs forming, we are still figuring out the best ways to get everyone on the same page with some of our chants and songs. There’s a lot of square footage and bodies that make up our end of the stadium. And everyone accepts that different SGs have their own cultures and their own style of support. I think everyone respects that. But how do we nail down the communication so that we can project that unified voice whenever possible? We made a lot of strides during the season, and these are good things for us to work through before we get into Allianz Field in 2019.

What are your goals for 2018? Do you have anything big in the works that you can let us in on?

DC: We’re doing more tifo this year, so keep an eye out for that as it should be really great. And there will likely be even more flags in the section this year, because flags are awesome. Outside of the 90 minutes, Opoti adds a challenge for all supporters: I challenge every supporter to commit to doing at least five hours of community service/involvement, as we are not here without the community around us and we need to show them our appreciation.

TNE: What we have said as a board and a membership is that we would of course like to keep growing TNE, but we want to do so while maintaining our identity. I think we will grow in this new year, but if our numbers stayed the same, yet we were having even more fun, having even bigger participation in our Keepers of The North events, we’d count that as a successful year. We’d also like to step up our tifo in 2018, working in collaboration with the other SGs. This year is really one last dress rehearsal before we move into our permanent home in 2019. That’s the biggest thing, really. How can we work to make TNE the best it can be, and how can TNE work with all the other SGs to make the environment at Allianz Field the best in MLS?

What makes Minnesota’s supporter culture unique from the rest of MLS?

DC: We come from the cold and frozen north, so clearly we find ourselves with a lot of time to contemplate new and exciting ways to support that others may spend outside enjoying weather that isn’t actively trying to kill them. Also, not everyone lives by Drink-90-Drink, and I love just how welcoming we are to all traveling supporters.

TNE: Every thriving soccer culture has a backstory. Professional soccer in Minnesota has roots that go back to the old NASL days and the Kicks. Since those days, ongoing support was limited to a dedicated few it’s fair to say. Maybe what makes our community special is how close professional soccer came to dying again here. Had the National Sports Center not operated the team, had the (new) NASL not kept it alive, and had Dr. McGuire not rescued the club, it’s unclear that there would even be a professional side in Minnesota right now, let alone one entering its second season in MLS. Maybe you could be shocked by the rapidity with which support and interest has recently exploded. Dark Clouds started it all from an SG standpoint, but just since 2015 you’ve had TNE form, and now a number of additional organized SGs. Crazy times. In addition to MLS, Minnesota hosts the largest youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere (USA Cup), with a history that goes back to 1985. We’ve got exciting amateur teams in the NPSL on both sides of the river (Minneapolis City SC and VSLT FC). The sport has always been here; support for the professional game never completely went away, it just burst wide open in the last 4-5 years, and in some ways we’re only getting started.

‘We’re only getting started’

Stay tuned to Scarves Up to hear from founding members of Pioneers, Mill City Ultras, and Fists of the North Star, smaller groups which have either joined the Wonderwall for MLS (in the case of Pioneers which began at NSC) or broken out from the larger SGs in the last year (like MCU and FOTNS). These small, but boisterous and vibrant, groups face different challenges in the evolution of Minnesota fandom, but share one purpose:

One heart, one voice for the boys in black and blue. Scarves up!

Author: Bridget McDowell

Graduated from Bethany Lutheran College (Mankato, MN) in 2012 with a B.A. in English. Soccer Supporter, soccer writer, kayaker, Midwest traveler. Writer and editor MLSFemale | Cohost of KRSM's MN Futbol Show | Co-Founder of Red Card to Racism

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