Sports

The Socialist Soccer Fans Who Saved MLS From Neo-Nazis

New York's Empire Supporters Club has changed a lot since its early years, when many members were socialist and anarchist activists, and when one of their main concerns was whether the stands would become a haven for fascists or far-right extremists.

by Leander Schaerlaeckens
Nov 29 2015, 4:40pm

Roger Gaess/Courtesy Holly Duthrie

There will be no neo-Nazis crashing Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference final on Sunday, when the New York Red Bulls host the Columbus Crew. In all likelihood, there won't be very many anarchists, skinheads, or socialists in Red Bull Arena's supporters section, either. All of which is to say that a lot has changed since the home club got its start as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1996.

The Empire Supporters Club has been there through it all—new names; new owners; new stadium; and the same old disappointment in the playoffs, year after year. When the group breaks into its full pomp on Sunday, chanting and drumming and singing and hollering, the atmosphere will be just as eardrum-assaulting as it was back at the cavernous old Giants Stadium 20 years ago, if not more so. However, the modern ESC looks much different from its earliest incarnation, when many members were socialist and anarchist activists, and when their main concern was not only to cheer but also to ensure—sometimes physically—that the stands wouldn't become a haven for fascists or far-right extremists.

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Kevin McAllister, who founded the ESC in 1995, believes that because soccer was a big component of the left-wing political movement in Europe, similar groups in New York City naturally gravitated to any new pro soccer team in the area. "It was important to a lot of people that they also be involved in a football club," he says.

Until the MetroStars came along, New York didn't have any soccer culture to speak of. The Cosmos had been dead for a decade. And when pro soccer did return, it was made for an inviting platform. This happened first with the short-lived New York Centaurs, which started playing A-League games on Randall's Island in 1995. Their devoted hardcore fan group, the New York City Firm, was founded by an anarchist named Tommy Miles and drew many members from the Red and Anarchist Skin Heads, or RASH, an anti-racist, anti-fascist skinhead group that had risen out of the punk scene just a few years earlier.

"Many of them were Anglophiles who were familiar with soccer culture in England and Scotland," McAllister says of the Firm. "It was sort of a combination of their connections with Britain and in the left-wing political movements that brought them out together to Centaurs games. They really got things going out there. And that was sort of the genesis for the ESC."

The ESC carry a NYC Firm sign on a road trip to New England in 2000. Photo by Roger Gaess, courtesy Holly Duthrie

McAllister started the ESC as a sort of umbrella organization for MetroStars fan groups, and it absorbed the Firm after the Centaurs merged with another team and ultimately folded. That wound up setting much of the tone for the group's early years, as the members of RASH wanted to establish the MetroStars as a leftist club within the global community of socialist soccer fans.

Not everybody was a lefty or particularly political, but the socialist ideology prevailed in an unruly band of loosely affiliated fans. "We were a motley bunch," Holly Duthie, an early ESC member who was heavily involved in its organization, recalls via email. "We had skinheads, Marines, Latinos, Polski hooligans, families with kids, Jersey guys, and ska, northern soul, and punk folks."

"I think for the most part the thing that everybody could agree on was to make MetroStars and the supporters section unfriendly to racists and fascists," says Miles, who joined ESC. "Amongst a core of people, it was decided that there would not be Nazis allowed at MetroStars matches."

ESC's more political members had watched right-wing outfits use soccer as a platform and recruiting ground in much of Europe and South America in the mid-1990s, and closer to home in the local punk rock scene. They were concerned that the same thing could happen in the nascent MLS, and in particular at Giants Stadium.

"We wanted to make sure that if soccer was coming to the New York, New Jersey, that supporters sections were not allowed to be taken over by far-right racist elements," recalls Greg Pason, an ESC member at the time.

An early ESC section in the stands. Photo by Roger Gaess, courtesy Holly Duthrie

Their fears were borne out in the MetroStars' second home game, when a group of neo-Nazis from South Jersey showed up. "People knew ahead of time it was only going to end one of two ways," Miles says. "They were ejected." The ESC didn't exactly shy away from fighting, either, and according to several people who were there that day, a violent confrontation finally drove the far-right group away.

The neo-Nazis were never a problem again. "They continued to attend," Pason says, "but never in any organized way." But there were other "isolated incidents," McAllister recalls, when bands of far-right fanatics came to games and did Hitler salutes and sang racist chants. Pason remembers them as mostly being recent Russian and Polish immigrants. "They were coming out to matches and did not understand why they couldn't wear swastikas and why those white power and racist chants were not really accepted," he says. "So we had to be more vocal with some of those folks."

Not that the MetroStars or MLS thanked the ESC for keeping its stands free of neo-Nazis. Jeff Bradley, the club's press officer in its first season, who regularly interacted with fans, says he had no idea that there was such a strong political component to the ESC, or that the stands had become an ideological battleground. (New York City FC went through some of the same growing pains in its inaugural season in 2015, when some far-right elements allegedly infiltrated their supporters groups and attacked the Garden State Ultras, another Red Bulls fan organization.)

"The MetroStars knew as little as they possibly could about us," says McAllister. "They didn't pay us any mind at all. I think they thought that we were more of a curiosity and at times an irritant."

The MetroStars and Giants Stadium were, in the ESC's telling, wholly unprepared for dealing with a hardcore supporters group—a totally novel concept to many at the club's front office, according to the fans. The supporters kept butting heads with stadium security and did things like chant "Fuck the shootout" whenever another tied regular season game was decided by penalty kicks, hoping that their disgust of the format would be audible on the TV broadcast. The ECS was initially mixed in with regular fans who didn't want to stand and couldn't see through the fanatics who did. It took a few games for the MetroStars to figure out that the supporters group needed its own section.

"It wasn't like today where they use pictures of the ultra-style supporters as a selling point of the league," says Miles. "It was really imagined as a family-friendly, soccer moms kind of event. And they really just didn't quite know what to do with the ESC." (Fan-club relations have improved dramatically since Red Bull bought and renamed the club in 2006, although many ESC members were put off by the re-naming and re-branding of the club and left.)

The ESC members section today. Photo by Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Their thin numbers at the time didn't help. In the league's first year, the MetroStars drew almost 24,000 per game and recorded what is still the best-attended game in league history when they hosted the Los Angeles Galaxy and pulled in 69,255. It wasn't until year two, when the novelty of MLS wore off and attendance sank by 16 percent league-wide and the MetroStars were suddenly pulling in fewer than 17,000 per game, that the ESC became more visible in the stands.

If the MetroStars were a mediocre team among the budding league's grab bag of clubs, their fans, at least, made an impression. Here, too, the ESC was heavily influenced by Europe and helped to draw the blueprint for MLS supporters groups. "We'd take these songs that we'd borrowed, from people taking trips to the UK, songs from Italy, from Argentina or Spain," says Ben Poremski, another early member who wasn't active politically but considered himself a "fellow traveler."

"We felt like we led the league in support," Duthie says. "It seemed like we were more organized than a lot of the other groups. We painted a lot of banners–we didn't know the word 'tifo' back then–and made a lot of noise. We mocked the other teams for not having supporters groups and fans in general. I'm pretty sure 'You Suck, Asshole' started there. It was funny at the time! We took a lot of pride in hearing it ringing out in the stadium and on the TV broadcast! Now it's gotten pretty old but back then it was great."

"Most everybody was drunk at the time and we wanted to have a great environment," says Pason. "Maybe hooliganism is the word, I don't know if that would be the correct term. But it wasn't wholesome. The ESC was pretty loud and obnoxious. We wanted to intimidate other supporters clubs and teams and we were pretty rude."

"There was definitely a sensibility that things weren't really there to be controlled by MLS," Poremski says. "It was wide open. We were there to establish a form of support that was whatever we wanted it to be. The idea that Giants Stadium or the MetroStars or the MLS would presume to have the authority to tell us how to support the team seemed ludicrous. That anarchistic sensibility pervaded the club early on."

Red Bulls fans celebrate during the MLS Playoffs earlier this year. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Today, that political undertone has eroded. Most of the original ESC leaders and members moved on. No one quoted in this article is still involved, Miles now works as an IT professional, and Pason is the national secretary for Socialist Party USA–he has unsuccessfully run for the U.S. Senate four times and for New Jersey governor twice. Still, the inclusive atmosphere that they insisted on two decades back has survived. "The thing that I'm most proud of is that it left the ESC with a point of view that was very open-minded and accepting," says McAllister. "I think that continues to be one of the stronger principles of the ESC."

Pason, speaking from the national headquarters of the Socialist Party USA, remembers it all fondly. "We wanted to have a great team, but we were activists as well," he says. "It was a shitty club, but it was a great atmosphere."