Sports

The Rise of Ultras in Major League Soccer

Football ultras are a European phenomenon, yet they seem to have spread to the more overtly corporate world of Major League Soccer.

by Bo Franklin
Aug 20 2015, 3:40pm

PHOTO: PA IMAGES

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

European football has become renowned for a certain type of fan: ultras. These groups make up the most passionate, vocal, and often violent sections of a club's support.

In the U.S. however, football culture is still in its infancy. Major League Soccer played its first game in 1996, and the average Brit has likely only heard of a handful of teams. LA Galaxy, where David Beckham was put out to grass, is the most successful, winning the MLS Cup five times.

Now though, groups of fans in the MLS are starting to come into their own, and some are modelling themselves on the unruly and unpredictable ultras that often dominate the stands in Europe. Police were recently called to a brawl outside a New York pub after fans of the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC ended up hurling pool cues, sandwich boards, and bags of rubbish at each other.

In New Jersey and immediately encounter crowd trouble ahead of the New York derby (Red Bulls-City). Video: pic.twitter.com/slY3hYn5aM
— Rob Harris (@RobHarris) August 9, 2015

One of the groups associated with the incident is the Garden State Ultras (GSU). They are one of three fan groups that support the Red Bulls, and have a rebellious streak not seen before in American soccer. In 2013, MLS encouraged clubs to stop fans shouting abusive chants like "You suck, asshole!" – which seems rather milder than the language heard in English stadiums. When Red Bulls management offered to pay each fan group $500 a match if they piped down, both the Empire Supporters Club and Viking Army rolled over. But GSU rejected the offer.

The group's spokesman, Christopher Vidaic, said at the time: "Come out, support your club and hold your head high and sing loud! It is recommended that all GSU members wear a bandana or some face cover for the upcoming games. As we all know the FO (Fourth Official) is on the lookout for "inappropriate" language and behavior. We say fuck them! We will not be censored."

In Europe at least, football has long been associated with violence. Groups in the UK like the Chelsea Headhunters and West Ham's Inter City Firm, the focus of Alan Clarke's The Firm, were notorious for thuggish behaviour and right-wing views in the past.

In Ukraine ultras have recently been linked to far-right paramilitary groups fighting separatists in Mariupol. Politics is a major part of many ultras groups, as evidenced last week when the anti-fascist Clapton Ultras were attacked by a group of far-right thugs at a home game.

But in the MLS these divisions have never existed. Fan groups might be passionate, but they've generally been diverse and accepting too. This is probably due to the way the clubs handled their fans from the outset. In the early days of the league, the clubs kept a tight rein on fan groups, helping to avoid the reputation of hooliganism that's plagued European football in the past. However, it also meant they were effectively neutered.

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Now things are starting to change and many American fans are modelling themselves on European ultras. In the video of the Red Bulls and City clash, fans can clearly be heard aping the same chant that echoes around stadiums up and down the UK, even down to their affected mockney accents: "Who are ya?"

In the San Jose Ultras, the most ardent supporters of the San Jose Earthquakes, there's a direct link between European and American football culture. The group was founded by Dan Margarit, who moved to America from Bucharest in 1999. Back in Romania, Dan was a member of the Steaua Ultras, supporters of FC Steaua București. Steaua has a long history of violence and far-right influences, stemming from a smaller, more extreme group called the Armata Ultras. Although this group had left Steaua by the early 2000s, problems persisted, and just this February Steaua fans were handed a stadium ban by UEFA for repeated racist incidents. Dan has no sympathies or history with this element of the ultras movement.

San Jose's Ultras have also had their fair share or Euro-style controversy. In 2013 some Earthquakes fans were accused of beating up a Portland Timbers fan during an away game, something which the Ultras quickly comdemned. When they later flew a banner referencing the attack, however, club management banned them from attending further away games. I asked Dan Margarit about the growing parallels between American fan groups and their European counterparts – and whether this should worry clubs in the MLS.

"Out here for most people, a soccer game is some extra activity for a weekend. In Europe it's an important part of life," explained Dan. His group is an exception though, and their rivalry with Portland has driven a wedge between the club and its most passionate supporters. At a recent game, the Ultras were banned from flying a banner in support of another ultras group from DC, in case it offended Portland fans. According to Dan, this ruined the match: "The atmosphere was weak. We did our own thing, we were loud and going at it for 90-plus minutes, but we were still pissed because of the pre-game banner incident. The game was bad, so the rest of the stadium didn't get into it at all."

Relations have since seriously broken down with the Earthquakes' management.

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"It's not working. We deal with the front office voluntarily, they get paid to deal with us, yet there is no appreciation... I spent thousands of hours of my personal time in meetings, phone conferences, and 13 years later I can tell that it was nothing but a waste of my time."

Dan insists that violence isn't a problem in the MLS, even among Ultras groups, even though incidents such as the Red Bulls/NYC FC fight apparently break out all the time. He doesn't see this as indicative of a more worrying trend, but instead believes the latest incident was only well publicised because it was caught on camera. According to him, "those type of small, isolated fights have always happened in or around the American stadiums, probably more at American football games".

While his group are inspired more by mainland European ultras than fans in the UK, Dan does claim, "most groups in MLS copy the English style of support", even down to the accents. Whether it's based on British or European football culture, however, it's obvious that fans' increasing unruliness doesn't sit well with the clean, corporate reputation of MLS.

Dan still believes more raw excitement can be added to the American game, assuring me that "There are groups all around the league who try to offer their team a decent level of support, but it's extremely hard when it's being seen as thuggish behaviour, as a nuisance, by regular fans as well as the league and the club managements."

As the MLS matures, a new, wholly committed type of fan is jostling with the Saturday soccer moms and dads in the stands. While the political and class roots that formed football identities in Europe don't exist in the U.S., fans are still willing to defend their club to the last. MLS players better get used to being told "You suck, asshole!", because America's ultras refuse to be silenced.