I stood shoulder to shoulder with forty of my favorite soccer fans. The Red Army, the supporters’ group of the Richmond Kickers, our local professional soccer club, had taken over the beer garden just behind the goal at Sports Backers Stadium. On the field, Richmond played upstart RVA FC in the US Open cup. The coach and owner of the crosstown team had incensed the Kickers’ fans with negative comments about the team’s history and fan base. From behind the goal, the Red Army aimed to defend ourselves. We chanted and sang from whistle to whistle, abusing the coach – “We don’t hate your players… But your coach is a dick!” – and one particular defender who happened to make a negative challenge too close to our watchful eyes. We offered constant encouragement to the Kickers and lost our minds every time they scored. And score they did. On the field, the Kickers cooly demonstrated the gulf in talent between the tier three USL Pro and the tier four, amateur NPSL. The Kickers cruised to a 6-1 road victory and claimed the inaugural Richmond Derby in emphatic fashion.
The match, especially the riotous fan support, stands out as one of my better moments as a sports fan. I love the sense of community and enthusiasm of a well-organized supporters group. But how did I get here? I ridiculed soccer players in high school. How did I become one of the more dedicated soccer fans in one of America’s most soccer crazed cities?
I spent my childhood in an Appalachian corner of America’s Rust Belt. We only had two sports that meant anything. I played football and baseball as soon as I learned to run and joined their respective little leagues as soon as I reached the minimum age. We played basketball in the backyard as a hobby, but we never took it seriously. Hockey represented a strange oddity from the frozen north. In that environment, soccer felt completely foreign, almost invasively so. I doubt I knew the sport existed before I read about Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones in Sports Illustrated for Kids at nine-years-old. In cloistered West Virginia, foreignness often gets equated with evil, whether intended or not. I made no exception for soccer.
While I moved to Virginia for middle school and high school, I found different reasons for disparaging the beautiful game. Unconsciously, it came to represent the class difference between my family the majority of my community. Around the world, soccer has a much more populist appeal. You only need a round ball and a few yards of space to play. In the States the game has become strangely associated with “soccer moms,” white, upper-middle class suburbanites, a segment especially prone to ignoring the socio-economic issues of American society. For them soccer became the sanitized alternative to the violent sports and people of the four major American sports.
Brookville High School sat in a community dominated by soccer moms. I came from the lower middle class. My grandfathers both worked in steel mills. My family never had a lot, but we valued education, we worked hard, and we had our pride. In the advanced courses, the upper middle class surrounded me. Unlike West Virginia, I became the underprivileged minority. I resented my classmates for how easy they had it and how little they appreciated what they had. I resented their united families; my parents’ divorce had preceded the move to Virginia. I hated their safe conservatism, their cookie cutter homes and businesses. It reeked of avoiding life. They had so much to lose, so they risked nothing. And they played soccer. For me, supporting their passtime equated a traitorous support for the contradictions of American society.
So I ridiculed soccer for not being football. I criticized soccer for lacking aggression. Real men hit each other. Obviously, soccer players were weaker than football players or they would play the true American sport. Truly, I criticized the upper-middle class for playing it safe in their towers and not engaging the rest of us on our level. They had their money and their health, but we were the true survivors. I made these assumptions, but I had one little gap in my understanding of soccer. I had never watched the game.
The month I graduated from high school, the soccer nations united to play the 2002 World Cup from Korea and Japan. I don’t remember how it happened, why I turned on the TV to that particular channel at that particular time. I have always loved having ESPN and other random sports on in the background. Regardless, I suddenly found myself watching two random countries, countries I had no interest in, countries that have absolutely zero impact on my life in the states, kick a ball back and forth at 2 AM.
I found the sport enthralling. I loved the constant action. I never had to wait thirty seconds for another brief play, another solitary pitch, or another set of boring free throws. The game ran at the speed of modern life. And contrary to the criticisms often leveled against soccer, I enjoyed the low scores. It made every goal vitally important. One moment meant the difference between agony and glory. Combined with the constant action, that singular moment could come at any time. I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation of that match defining goal. These world class players also dispelled my notion of a softer athlete. They threw their bodies at crosses with no regard for head or limb. They didn’t need pads to get physical. They embodied the essence of athleticism as they ran the length of the pitch over and over for a solid ninety minutes. As I graduated from my suburban high school, I also graduated from the connection between soccer and the American soccer mom.
My new fascination with soccer would lie dormant for the next six or seven years except for the brief interruption of the 2006 World Cup. During that time, I attended Virginia Tech where I earned my degree in fan support. Hokies have an extreme dedication to our football team. Like beleaguered Liverpool fans, over the last twenty-five years the team has flirted with a national championship only to see it slip from our fingers each time. It only makes us fiercer in our determination to prove ourselves. Every home game in the fall, whether Saturday afternoon or Thursday night, you could find me studying with the rest of the student section in the feared North End Zone. I took courses on “Yelling the Entire Time the Defense is on the Field,” “Jangling Your Keys During Third and Fourth Down Stops,” and “Encouraging the Offense to ‘Stick It In.'” With a collection of talented colleagues I completed my thesis on “How to Paint Your Body Maroon and Orange, Even in the Rain in November.” We earned honors such as Rivals’ #1 Home Field Advantage in College Football and brief spots on ESPN and an EA Sports video game. I graduated Cum Laude in more ways than one.
While at Tech, I often used the McComas Gym to stay in shape for my military service. The gym sat in the same complex that held the soccer field where the men’s and women’s soccer teams competed. To enter or exit the gym, I often had to walk right past a match. The sport still intrigued me in so many ways. Men’s or women’s, I found myself stopping to watch five-, ten-, fifteen-minute stretches of the matches. I often had other priorities, but I couldn’t turn away from the great action. In the fall of 2008 during my senior year, I finally sat through an entire live match with a couple of friends as the men’s team faced off against an ACC foe.
The live match planted a seed in my head, “Why was I waiting four years to enjoy soccer again?” The following spring, only two weeks after I graduated from Tech, I cheered on Barcelona as they vanquished Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final. At that moment, I knew I had to find a professional team. It would bridge the gap between the World Cup every four years, the business end of the European soccer season fell during the fallow period for American football, and with my departure from Blacksburg, I would need to find another fan base as maniacal about their team as college football fans in the south. Only soccer would do.
I just had to pick a team. I didn’t have the advantages of a growing up with a local club or an evangelist to show me the way to his or her team’s gospel. So, I did my research. If I had no local team, I decided I wanted to watch soccer at the highest level – no second rate league would do. This quickly ruled out MLS. Also, as a typically monolingual American, I wanted a club I could support fully in a language I understood. This quickly led me to the English Premier League. I explored the clubs the best way I knew how, the internet and an old copy of FIFA for the X-box 360. I found a great article by my favorite columnist, Bill Simmons, as he walked a similar path three years prior. I sought a team that could win, that would finish every season in the top half of the table without fear of relegation. I needed a team that could compete with Manchester United. Above all, I went into my fandom knowing I hated the Red Devils. If I joined them, I would feel like another bandwagon fan. I despised the way their championship run smacked of purchased titles. It reminded me too much of the New York Yankees and their Evil Empire.
Four teams made it to FIFA playing stage: Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Everton. The first three made it on their reputation as part of the “Big Four,” the teams that routinely competed for English silverware. Everton made it on the strength of America’s best soccer export, national team goalie Tim Howard. I took turns playing with each of the four so I could get to know their players and style. Chelsea fell away first as I learned of their quick rise behind Roman Abramovich’s deep pockets. Arsenal followed soon after. I enjoyed their fluid offense, but they had a reputation for choking in the big moments. They seemed to lack the requisite toughness I expect from my chosen teams. My choice became a Merseyside Derby.
I let the situation sit for a week or two, but despite my love for “Timmay!” I increasingly couldn’t fathom ever rooting against Liverpool. It felt too much like home. Whether for the Cincinnati Reds or the San Francisco 49ers, I have always had a peculiar habit of rooting for teams in red. Like my 49ers, Liverpool had a long and rich history – they dominated European football in the late-seventies and eighties – but they hadn’t won the league title in two decades. I got the benefit of tradition without riding a recent championship. I felt comfortable with the culture of the city. Liverpool rises up on the English coast, a dirty conglomeration of steel mills, Irish immigrants, and great music. It brought me back to my rust belt roots. Best of all, Liverpool and Manchester United fuel arguably England’s greatest rivalry. During certain periods, the rivalry between the two has meant more than their own local derbies. Liverpool remain the rebel alliance to Manchester United’s evil empire. I sealed the decision when I moved to Richmond, VA, shortly thereafter to pursue grad school. It turns out that Penny Lane Pub, the longtime purveyor of all visual needs EPL in the Richmond area, was founded by a Liverpool immigrant and fan. Every Saturday, the EPL’s home bar in the RVA filled with fellow Reds.
Richmond provided another great soccer surprise. The Kickers had called Richmond home since the days before MLS, a rarity considering the history of American soccer. During that time, the Kickers had demonstrated a fair amount of success, winning four regular season titles and two playoff championships in seventeen seasons throughout the lower divisions of American soccer. Most impressively, the Kickers had claimed the prestigious US Open Cup in the final tournament before the start of the MLS. Not long after arriving in town, my brother-in-law invited me to my first match at City Stadium. I went to the last four or five home matches of the season as the Kickers made a fabulous run to their second USL Championship in four years. Even as a relatively new fan, I felt overcome with joy as I watched the team clinch on our home field. They had me. I’ve bought season tickets every year since.
In many respects, my interest in the Kickers exceeds my interest in Liverpool. I feel a sense of ownership over my local team. They represent me and the city I love. For instance, despite our very beneficial relationship with DC United, I still find it difficult to support the MLS side. I always remember those heartbreaking losses to DCU in the US Open Cup these last two seasons. Both times, the Kickers played admirably in City Stadium, pushing Untied to extra time in 2012 and penalty kicks in 2013. I can’t quite forgive DC for taking that from us. I hold grudges against random fan bases like Wilmington, just because I happened to sit behind an obnoxious visitor in an opening round playoff loss two years ago. My Kickers fandom has memory. Joining the Red Army when RP Kirtland suggested it on behalf of the Kickers late last summer just felt like the next natural step.
This Saturday, I will once again stand in Section O with the Red Army and cheer on our Kickers. I have learned a few things about my conversion to soccer and I want to share the gospel with others. When trying to grow American soccer, don’t rush it. People need time to dispel their old prejudices. Let the sport speak for itself. We admire a truly beautiful game that dazzles and excites, whether watching the highest levels from a pub or joining the throng in support of our local professional and college teams. Above all, keep an open heart. Through our attitude towards the sport and those outside our supporter’s group, we can either draw new fans in or we can push them away. I would prefer to have everyone in the Red Army.