Experience MLS like a die-hard fan
Photograpy and video by Samuel Wilson
Soccer in America is all about the atmosphere. Die-hard supporters of MLS teams from Atlanta to Seattle spend their time and money creating fan experiences and traditions unique to the cities they represent. Take a trip across the country for a firsthand look at five matchday environments that rival any in American pro sports.
Atlanta United FC
ATLANTA — Little Charlie Molinaro could not contain himself.
The 6-year-old, positioned at the tip of a red carpet outside the southeast corner of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, bounced as if on a trampoline as he celebrated with his parents, John and Brittany. Dressed in a black Incredible Hulk shirt with an Atlanta United scarf dangling from his neck, Charlie braced for his own superhero moment: a chance to connect with the soccer players he adores.
The entire Atlanta United team, beginning with goalkeeper Brad Guzan and ending with top scorer Josef Martinez, strolled down the red carpet, high-fiving fans. They picked up markers and placed their signatures on an 8-foot-long replica railroad nail known as the Golden Spike.
Awestruck Charlie, the first cheerleader in line after the players, walked up to the golden spike and carefully scribbled his name in black ink on a side panel. The experience was an early present with his birthday just a few days away.
The last time Charlie's parents saw him that thrilled?
"I don't know. Maybe when we went to Disney World and he met some of the characters?" John Molinaro, an Atlanta United season-ticket holder, said of his son. "Yes, he was really excited."
So were the thousands of other exuberant supporters who lined up Wednesday, July 17, at 5:30 p.m., 90 minutes before an Atlanta United showdown with the Houston Dynamo. They were eager to place their signatures on the golden spike, the first unifying step in a tradition that has evolved into a trademark for Atlanta's MLS franchise. Almost 10,000 fan signatures, on average, are collected per match, before four members from each of the club's supporter groups -- Terminus Legion, Faction, Footie Mob and Resurgence -- carry the spike down the aisle between sections 101 and 102. From there, typically a local celebrity -- anyone from boxer Evander Holyfield to rapper Big Boi to actor and filmmaker Ron Howard -- hammers the golden spike into a platform at the capo stand.
After the match, win, lose or draw, a pair of miniature golden spikes are given to the player voted Man of the Match by the fans. The player hammers one spike into the platform and takes the other home as his personal memento.
"The golden spike is just a great way for us to be connected with them, and for folks to know that we're not only just a club about the players, we care about our fans, our community," Guzan said. "We're all in this together."
The golden spike's roots are a reflection of the city's history. The Zero Mile Post, a granite pillar from 1850, marked the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Its development turned Atlanta into a transportation hub. Die-hards thought such a concept would be the ideal way to link fans with the soccer club, which was founded in 2014 and started play as an expansion team in 2017.
"Firstly, it was something that came from the fans in terms of Terminus Legion, one of our support groups, with the railroad theme," said Atlanta United president Darren Eales. "We thought this could be some imagery that we run with."
GOLDEN SPIKE CEREMONY
Before the Houston match, Tammy Rivera, the wife of rapper Waka Flocka Flame, stepped up to the stage to hammer home the golden spike. She stretched the hammer in the air, then pounded the spike three times, securing it to the sounds of a deafening roar.
Eales reflected on the time team owner Arthur Blank nailed in the golden spike.
The hammer looks very heavy, but it's actually quite light and made of rubber," Eales explained. "So whenever we have the hammerer, we tell them to make it feel like a proper sledgehammer. Arthur picked it up the first time he did it and was like, 'Whoa, this is light.' The crowd was chanting, 'Uncle Arthur, Uncle Arthur.'"
Eales was all smiles after the Houston match, celebrating the club's 5-0 triumph. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe received the postmatch golden spikes after scoring his first goal with the club. After nailing in one mini-spike, Nagbe signed the back of a little boy's T-shirt. The boy had the same kind of awed look on his face that Charlie did during prematch festivities.
"Every time, you catch at least one fan -- a little kid -- that is over-the-moon excited that you made eye contact, you shook their hand or you stopped and signed an autograph," captain Michael Parkhurst said. "It takes five seconds from us. Hopefully [that kid] will play soccer because of it, enjoy the day or remember it forever. Who knows? But it makes an impact. It's little moments like that, that's why we do it.
"And the golden spike, it's just a reminder of what we do, it's with the fans. We're all connected. We're all here for a common goal: to enjoy soccer and try to win."
Vaughn McClure is an ESPN staff writer who covers the Atlanta Falcons and the NFL.
Minnesota United FC
ST. PAUL, Minn. — On a perfect summer day in St. Paul, Minnesota, thousands of soccer fans streamed into Allianz Field, the new home of Minnesota United. The MLS squad used to play its games at a sports complex in the outer ring suburbs, but this year's opening of Allianz Field, a facility that holds 19,000-plus soccer fans in the middle of the state capital, has turned the Twin Cities into a hub for soccer fans.
Hours before a friendly against the Premier League's Aston Villa, hundreds of fans visited the Brew Hall, the frenzied, 4,000-square-foot pub that anchors the stadium. There are 96 beers on tap. It is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, even if the team isn't playing.
One of those fans was Terrell Brown, a Minneapolis native who has witnessed soccer at the highest levels. He attended the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with a friend, and is a devoted supporter of German club Bayern Munich. He said he is in awe of the product he gets to watch in his hometown, now that MNUFC is buzzing.
VIEWS FROM ALLIANZ
"It's wonderful," he said. "Before United joined Major League Soccer, the team played in a little place in Blaine, Minnesota. This is just such an improvement. It's a totally different atmosphere. I'm a season-ticket holder. I love this place."
The Twin Cities is a rarity within the national sports scene. Minneapolis (the 46th-largest city in America) and St. Paul (63rd) combined boast a population just over 700,000 if you exclude the suburbs. Yet, this area has Division I football and basketball, NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL and MLS teams, all with their own stadiums and arenas. The area also boasts a WNBA team, though the Lynx share an arena with the NBA's Timberwolves
The crowd at the Brew Hall prepping for the Aston Villa friendly featured one of the area's most diverse fan bases.
Originally from Liberia, Ballah Koiblee coaches youth soccer in Minneapolis. He enjoys the MN United games and the international flavor of the crowds.
"I've been following them since I was in high school," he said. "It's a lot of people. It's getting bigger, bigger and bigger. I love it. International people from everywhere. Everyone coming to watch the game. When they win, it's fun. Everyone comes together, cheers for the team."
It's proof of the sport's wide-ranging appeal and growth, said Christa Heiligenthal.
"We're soccer fans," she said. "Let's get it going. It's the most popular sport in every other country. It needs to be here, too."
Fan groups Dark Clouds and True North Elite are strong. They encourage those in the building to ban together to sing throughout each match, and their chants echo throughout the sleek, $250 million complex. The supporters' section has a standing-room-only area at the top of the bleachers that is filled every night, even though fans have to climb a steep, narrow staircase to get there.
And when their favorite team wins, thousands erupt into Oasis' "Wonderwall" to celebrate.
It's a captivating scene, one that has lured the area's soccer fanatics to St. Paul.
"It gets crazy," Brown said. "And when they shoot off the gunpowder in the supporters' section, if the wind is in the right direction, you can just smell that stuff, that black and blue gunpowder."
Myron Medcalf is an ESPN staff writer who covers college basketball and combat sports.
PORTLAND, Ore. — It was well past midnight by the time Brandon Warren lay down on his cot and slipped inside his sleeping bag. He wrapped his supporters' scarf over his head, shielding his eyes and ears.
"You don't really sleep," he explained before turning in. "You kind of just, like, nap."
He was proved right around 5 a.m., when an especially thorough sanitation worker emptied a nearby dumpster into a garbage truck.
For Warren and the row of 50 or so other general admission ticket holders camped on the sidewalk of SW Morrison Street in downtown Portland outside the Timbers' stadium, Providence Park, this comes with the territory. Fans who already have tickets line up there as early as 24 hours before each match to secure their preferred spot among the 18 sections and roughly 6,000 seats behind the north goal, where the heartiest members of the supporters' group known as the Timbers Army reside.
Camping, or line culture as it's sometimes called, has been going on in one form or another since the Timbers joined MLS in 2011. It's a pastime born out of necessity -- and Pacific Northwest pacifism.
THE WAITING GAME
"In 2011, there was this mad panic about, 'Oh crap, if I don't show up early enough, I'm not going to get my favorite spot,'" said Sheba Rawson, president of 107 Independent Supporters Trust, the nonprofit that drives the Timbers Army and the support group for the NWSL's Portland Thorns. "... So it would be people waiting in line all day -- all day -- to get in, and then about an hour before the gates are going to open, people start streaming off the MAX, and then they roll up and go, 'Hey Fred! How's it going?' chat and then cut in line. So people who had been there all day suddenly found themselves like three blocks away from the gate.
"And being Portlanders, they didn't complain. They just angrily updated their Facebook status or whatever."
In 2013, the Timbers Army worked with the front office to come up with a solution: The Timbers Army would give out 1,200 numbered wristbands at some inexact time several hours before each match to determine the order of entrance. Only those present could get a wristband, and the undisclosed handout time meant anyone pulling up for a last-minute chat-and-cut would risk missing the window.
The campout crowd grew from there.
At least 100 fans, by Warren's estimation, would start camping out five days before the biggest rivalry matches. Ken Sheets camped out four days before the 2016 opener against Columbus, which Portland had beaten for the MLS Cup the previous season
With 17 home matches over an MLS regular season, that type of commitment means missing some work.
"Vacation, sick time," Warren said. "You know -- got the flu ... I actually had an old boss call me out because I called out sick, and he's like, 'I know it's a Timbers game. I know where you're at.'"
THE LEGEND OF TIMBER JOEY
A lot changed when the Providence Park renovation project began in 2017 and added about 4,000 seats to the stadium's east side. Construction pushed the campers from there to the north side. The campout time was limited to 24 hours before each match and the number of wristbands was dropped to 600. Campers were no longer allowed to use tents or canopies, which gave way to zero-gravity recliners and cots like the one Warren sleeps on.
Warren, Sheets, Arthur Bartlett and the rest of their crew arrived at SW Morrison Street around 11:30 on the night before a June 22 match against Houston, later than usual to allow fans attending the Thorns match on June 21 to empty Providence Park before the group set up shop near the front of the line. They caught up while sipping on Henry Weinhard's and IPAs, leaving the empties on the rim of the trash can so folks trying to earn a few bucks could easily collect them for resale at 10 cents a can.
"I wouldn't know a lot of my friends if it wasn't for this line," Rodger Klingsporn said. "Because in the stadium, you're sitting in one place. Out here, you're meeting people everywhere."
By 8:45 a.m., more than 11 hours before first kick, the line grew to about 100. By 10:30, the head count was roughly 160 plus 11 dogs and the chairs of several others who had stepped out for breakfast.
Back near the start of the line, Sheets and others were seated around a smartphone streaming a Women's World Cup match. A few hours, later they would get their wristbands, disperse for a bit, then return to the stadium by 6. They would pass two more hours at their seats before the match began at 8.
"The game is not just what you're coming for," Sheets said. "You're coming for the atmosphere of this, the hanging out, the line culture. You're coming for the atmosphere of just B.S.-ing with people for two hours before the match ... having drinks, having food. And then the chanting and the fun and the game actually starts.
"That's just part of the process. It's not just about the 90 minutes."
Brady Henderson is an ESPN staff writer who covers the Seattle Seahawks and the NFL.
Seattle Sounders FC
SEATTLE — Drew Carey peered over his shoulder to make sure he was keeping pace with the sea of Sounders FC fans behind him. They were heading south on a closed-off street toward CenturyLink Field, where kickoff against Sporting Kansas City was a little under an hour away.
"This seems like a low turnout," said Carey, a comedian and TV personality who owns part of the team. "KC is not a big rival of ours. If it's a Portland game, Vancouver game, playoff game, anything like that -- packed."
Even on this Sunday evening in August, when a good percentage of Seattleites were nursing hangovers from the annual Seafair festival or still partying on Lake Washington, Occidental Avenue was plenty packed. There were a couple of hundred Sounders fans in tow, plus the 40 or so members of the Sounders' band, Sound Wave, whose percussion section provides the beat to which everyone chants:
"When it's us, versus them, you can always count on me!
When it's us, versus them, it's a Sounders unity!"
FOLLOW THE WAVE
This is the March to the Match, a tradition started by the Emerald City Supporters in 2005, when the Sounders were playing in the United Soccer League. It begins with a rally at Occidental Park in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle's downtown 90 minutes before every kickoff.
"It kind of gives you a little bit of a deeper dip into the culture of soccer, just for the Sounders," said Cody Brocato, who estimated he has attended some 20 marches over the past two years, including this one ahead of the Aug. 4 match against Kansas City.
After a performance by Sound Wave, Carey wearing his Sounders scarf and a credential, hopped on a stage and led a brief chant. He handed the microphone back to rally host Ken Carson, who announced each member of the Sounders' starting XI by reading off his first name and letting the crowd finish the name.
With about an hour left until kickoff, the marchers positioned themselves at Occidental Park's south entrance. Most of them were behind a row of folks carrying a giant ECS (Emerald City Supporters) banner, save for the capos, who led the crowd down Occidental, initiating Sounders chants along the way.
Carey, who flies up from Los Angeles for matches as often as his schedule will allow, was among those walking ahead of the pack. He pumped his fists to the chants, shook hands with approaching fans and briefly stopped to oblige a selfie request from one of them.
JUST KEEP CHANTING
The 13 or so minutes that it takes the crowd to walk four blocks from Occidental Park to the stadium's southwest entrance is longer than it took for the Sounders to decide to carry on the tradition once they joined MLS, according to Carey's recounting of how it went down. It was well before their inaugural season in 2009 during a meeting with the first two members of the Alliance Council, which is the liaison between season-ticket holders and the front-office and ownership group.
"[The council] were like, 'We should do this thing. It's a march to the match, Pioneer Square, and I think they've done it before,'" Carey said. "I was like, 'Yeah, that sounds like a great idea.' And I walked across the room to one of the other front-office guys and I go, 'These guys want to do a march to the match,' and they go, 'Sounds great.' And that's all there was to it. In like 10 minutes, it was decided. Just at this one gathering when we were having lunch and sandwiches and stuff."
At one point during the march down Occidental, Carey turned around and walked backward for several steps. He either was making sure he was keeping up or just wanted to take it all in.
"It's the fans who thought of it," he said. "The ECS guys came up with it. It's all organic. That's what makes it special to me. It's not like the team said, 'You know what? Let's do a march to the match and sign people up and hey everybody, come to the march.' Everybody did that on their own, which makes it fantastic to me."
Brady Henderson is an ESPN staff writer who covers the Seattle Seahawks and the NFL.
Sporting Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Locals affectionately call Sporting Kansas City's stadium "The Blue Hell," and that seemed fitting as the heat index settled in to a soupy 108 degrees for a game against FC Dallas in late July. Nobody is sitting. No sitting is one of the rules of those who inhabit the swath of bleachers in the north end zone, along with "always sing" and "have fun." A young teenager was banging on a large drum, and the kid kept going and going.
"He's a prodigy," Brandon Taylor said, without a hint of masochism in his voice.
Taylor is the ringleader of all this. Taylor is wearing two scarves and a thick jersey.
He is Sporting KC's head capo, if there is such an official title. Put it this way -- he has a bullhorn and 48 chants, which he boasts are the most in MLS. Probably.
Aside from an occasional free beer, Taylor doesn't get paid for his job leading the Cauldron, a large collection of the team's most passionate supporters who occupy the north end zone. He stands at the bottom of the bleachers as sort of a conductor in a symphony of chaos.
Capos are usually the most hardcore soccer fans. They lead the chants and are constantly engaged; despite that they don't get to watch much of the games because their backs are to the pitch.
Taylor estimates he hasn't seen a live goal in two years, even though there's a big screen above him. There's too much to do.
"I make sure the crowd is excited," he said. "I'm leading chants, I help out with the drums ...
"Honestly, I just come here to relax and have fun. You meet some interesting people."
WELCOME TO THE BLUE HELL
Taylor does not fit the profile of a soccer hooligan. He's a 37-year-old banker. He used to hate soccer, but then his friends took him to a game years ago at Arrowhead Stadium, and even though the cavernous venue was mainly empty, the people who were there made a deep impression.
"They were the most passionate people," he said. "We were losing, and they were still chanting and jumping around, and I'm like, 'Dude, this is fun.' I got hooked."
One of his favorite parts of the capo job is deciding the playlist for the chants, which are a cross between "Weird Al" Yankovic and something you'd hear in a kids' softball dugout. The people in the Cauldron really get into these chants. Taylor, for example, claims he was once kicked out of a Royals baseball game because he was chanting too loudly.
He was tapped to be a capo, in large part, because he was "the annoying guy" in the stands for a long time. And some of the chants are indeed annoying, especially if you're on the opposing side.
Like, "We Follow Ya," sung to the tune of a Peggy March song from the 1960s that pays homage to Sporting's original nickname, the Wizards..
"We love ya, we love ya, we love ya
And where you go we'll follow, we'll follow, we'll follow.
Cuz we support the Wizards, the Wizards, the Wizards ..."
KEEPING THE BEAT
One of the greatest compliments to members of the Cauldron is for an opposing player to react to them, like when FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez looked up at the crowd and smiled on this particular night, possibly because a young woman kept yelling that she wanted a selfie with his mom.
Sporting KC captain Matt Besler, a native of the Kansas City area, said he notices the impact of the Cauldron, too.
"They give us energy," Besler said. "They make probably a bigger difference than they think."
Taylor's day started early, with a long tailgate, but he did not once think about altering his plans on this late-July Saturday in oppressive heat. He can't have an off day, he said. He, and the Cauldron, must be constantly on, through heat waves and blowouts and stoppage time.
Late in the second half against Dallas, Sporting KC was down 2-0, and no one would've blamed him if he was sitting. His voice was giving out, he was drenched; and his team was not coming back
Taylor grabbed his bullhorn.
"We can still win this game," he said.
They didn't. But winning is not the only reason he comes. The Cauldron is sort of his social community, a group of fans who have become friends. His boisterous brethren include teachers, parole officers and IT workers. There is even a police officer among them, said Tamera Couchman, who stands near Taylor at games.
They have a Christmas party every year, and keep tabs on each other when the season is over.
"You would think we'd all be misfits or something," Couchman said, "but we're not."
When Sporting KC wins, Taylor and his friends head to the club area and keep chanting for a while. After a loss, like this one, they call it a night. But first, there's one more chant.
"Sporting 'til I die."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
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