Florian Nussdorfer from Fanzeit wrote an interesting article about our group last season.
Here is the link to the original article.
What follows is a rough translation:
A Lesson in Ultra
Soccer fans in the USA? Sitting on their fat asses, stuffing themselves with hot dogs, and making, at most, a little noise when the ice cream man is nearby. At least that’s the stereotype. Yet in the last few years, quite a bit has been done in the States when it comes to atmosphere: visually and audibly there are even parallels to be recognized between the supporter groups of American Major League Soccer and the local Ultra groups in this country, thanks mainly to a little help from Europe. Yet how authentic is the still young ultra culture in the USA?
When Dan Margarit came from Romania to the USA 15 years ago, he must have felt like someone who listened to heavy metal his whole life suddenly ending up at a Justin Bieber concert at his first San Jose Earthquakes game. In Romania, Dan was a member of the notorious Armata Ultras of Steaua Bucharest , which, with up to 4000 members , was the largest ultra group in the country. This group’s rules at Steaua games were basically the opposite of what Dan found in the USA. With the Armata Ultras, strict smoking, eating, drinking, and sitting bans ruled during the games. The fans were supposed to concentrate fully and entirely on supporting the team. But now it’s noise makers instead of pyro, nice family atmosphere instead of going nuts in the stands.
“Developing an ultras group from a fanbase that only makes noise when there’s free t-shirts or burgers was pretty hard and frustrating.”
Because he missed the ultra culture of his homeland at the games in Spartan Stadium, Dan decided to form an ultra group based upon the European model in 2003. However, there were definitely some difficulties in the beginning. “Developing such a complex creation as an ultra group out of a fanbase who only makes noise when there are free t-shirts and burgers was pretty hard and frustrating.” Dan says looking back. However, along with some fans with South American roots, a few local supporters became interested in the new, chaotic mass in section 135 who stood and continuously rooted for the team the entire game. However the new-ultras still definitely needed some help in terms of support: “We really had to start from scratch with these people,” Dan remembers. “They asked why we were supposed to wave flags, why we were supposed to sing for 90 minutes, etc. They really had no clue.”
Yet in time, the group made progress and in September of 2007 received unexpected reinforcement. The “1906 Supporters,” who until then had supported the second division California Victory, joined with the San Jose Ultras after their club left the league after only one season. That sounds absurd in this country, but it is definitely not unusual in the USA. That’s because there aren’t any clubs, per se, that play in MLS but franchises. Simply stated, that means whoever feels like having professional soccer and has the necessary cash available can submit an application to join the league. There is no promotion and relegation.
“We are an inconvenience.”
But how does this overcommercialized-to-the-point-of-bursting league fit with the “against modern soccer” mantra of the Ultras? Not very well at all, according to Dan. “The whole world is changing and soccer is just a part of it,” he says. “Passionate fans like us are supposed to be driven out to make room for consumers who behave like robots.” In fact, the Ultras are everything but loved by the league officials and clubs. Dan suspects,“Because we always say what we think and refuse to act like puppets.” “We are an inconvenience.” As such, there was often conflict in the past with management because the San Jose Ultras made fun of other groups with their tifo. Dan is particularly annoyed by the behavior of the Timbers Army. Instead of responding with their own banners, each time they would complain to the local media and league management and demand stadium bans for the San Jose Ultras.
As it is, the San Jose Ultras don’t think very much of the Timbers Army, but they are among the largest and most well-known supporters groups in MLS. And yet precisely those supporters groups who, according to Dan, may gladly use the stylistic elements of ultras, yet work together behind the scenes with MLS and the clubs to make life difficult for the “real” ultras. However, as far as supporting the team is concerned, Dan thinks the supporters groups have a considerable amount of catching up to do. “Most groups don’t sing more than three or four interchangeable chants per game and there’s way too much drumming. The groups all look the same and sound the same.”
Ivan Fernandez, who works as a freelance journalist in California and concentrates intensively on the ultra movement in the USA, confirms that the supporters groups work together with the FO much more closely in comparison to the Ultras. “The supporters groups are well-integrated with the clubs and they conform exactly to the corporate identity of their teams.” In this way, some supporters groups even support their clubs at promotional tours and advertising campaigns. The Ultras, on the other hand, are more politically motivated beyond the unconditional support of their team than the supporters groups.
2,500 kilometers to an away game
However, at times, the idea of unconditional support pushes both Ultras and supporter groups to the limit – above all geographically. The great distances between the venues in MLS make it virtually impossible to show up to all of the away games of a club as a complete group. Nevertheless, Dan and his people try “to represent at every away game whether there’s 5 or 100 of us.”
But the fact that the ultras in the US also deal with rather similar problems as their European counterparts is shown on the subject of pyro: “Some clubs are more tolerant when it comes to using pyro, others less. Ours belongs to the latter. We were threatened with punishment for crimes like arson or domestic terrorism if we lit off pyro,” reports Dan. And even though it hardly plays a role in MLS, the subject of violence also affects the stadium visit. “There are a few measures to prevent violence like, for example, restricting tifo or the freedom of ultra groups,” says Dan. A supporters group for LA Galaxy, The Angel City Brigade, had to recently experience these measures firsthand. Because a few streamers flew onto the pitch during a tifo, the group was banned from using any kind of fan materials until further notice.
“Ultra is 24/7”
In spite of these strange measures, soccer and its fan culture are on the rise in the US. The audience figures are steadily rising. In 2014, the average was around 19,000 spectators per game, above that of the 2nd Bundesliga. Even clubs with large stadiums like the Seattle Sounders regularly play before more than 40,000 fans and also many smaller stadiums are usually well attended. “With the sport, the fan scene also grows,” says Ivan Fernandez. And with the fan scene the culture of the ultras and supporters groups will grow accordingly. Where this development of subcultural fan scenes in carefully-styled MLS will lead should be exciting to watch. At any rate, when asked what ultra means to him personally, Dan ultimately responds with a statement that most ultras in this country would also certainly subscribe to: “Ultra is a lifestyle, a collection of principles and convictions. Ultra is 24/7. The friendship and the ideals within an ultra group are unique.”