Do You Know The Way?
What San Jose Earthquakes tell us about the condition of Major League Soccer
I am in a dusty car park in California, where a mini-village of tents, kegs and flags has been hastily erected. There are maybe 100 people, mostly men, dressed in black, speaking in huddled groups. BBQ and marijuana smoke are mingling in billowing sheets. To my right, a man is drizzling an obscure brand of hot sauce into a worryingly warm-looking oyster. This is San Jose and these are the San Jose Ultras, possibly the most fanatical Major League Soccer fans in North America. It is 6.30pm and they have been here for more than three hours, drinking under the fierce spring sun. In a few minutes they will roll up their tents, douse the numerous piles of hot coals and march towards the distant Avaya stadium to watch the San Jose Earthquakes play FC Dallas.
For more than thirteen years the San Jose Ultras have supported the Earthquakes at home and away with songs, banners and tailgating parties like the one I had been invited to. The group was founded by two Romanian immigrants who once belonged to the Armata Ultras of Steaua Bucharest. One of the founders, Dan Magritte, is in charge of the tailgate, moving frantically from fan to fan, squeezing shoulders, lighting cigarettes. It was made very clear to me when I arrived that I could talk only to Dan, which is difficult, because he cultivates an air of frenetic busyness.
In the last ten years MLS supporters’ groups have grown in size and volume, intruding on the genteel, family-friendly culture of American soccer. The Ultras are on the larger and wilder end of a handful of groups that include the LA Galaxy’s Riot Squad, the Portland Timbers Army and Real Salt Lake’s Rogue Cavalier’s Brigade. A surprising series of high profile clashes between supporters of the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC (founded just three years ago) has led many to fear that a darker and more intense edge is creeping into the American game.
The Ultras are not even the only supporters’ group for the Earthquakes, although they are by far the largest. They share the stand behind the goal with Imperio Sismico (the mostly Hispanic supporters group, whose website, Twitter feed and publicity materials are in Spanish) and Faultline, a smaller group who claim to be a more inclusive, family friendly and casual alternative to the Ultras. Imperio, Faultline and a third group called Casbah are officially recognised by the club’s website and are allowed to sit in a small official supporters terrace, one tier below the mass of Ultras who appear to outnumber the combined fan base of its rival groups two to one. The Ultras get on with these other groups, but there is friction, something that few people wanted to talk to me about. These groups have their own tailgates, their own T-shirts and their own flags and tifo.
The Ultras stated intention is to “take fanaticism and support to a level that was unseen in this league.” Since their inception they have been fiercely independent of the club. It has not always been an easy relationship. Their official website suggests something of a bunker mentality, accusing the club of treating them “like domestic terrorists”, and having a “hostile attitude” towards the fans. In February they turned down an offer of $3,000 from the Earthquakes to support away travel. The group has had its fair share of notorious incidents. In 2014 some members of the Ultras assaulted a Portland Timbers fan in his car, resulting in a chain of events that led officials to impose a tifo ban and a restriction on traveling privileges. The Ultras did not claim responsibility for the incident and officially condemned the attack.
Back in the car park a handful of security officials have gathered to monitor our progress. This means it’s almost time to leave.
More people live in San Jose than live in San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, New Orleans, Seattle, Detroit or Miami. In fact, it is probably the biggest city in North America that no one has heard of. It is an awkward and obscure sprawl, 50 miles drive south of San Francisco. In the early 1850s it became the first incorporated city in California and was briefly the state’s capital. After that the city expanded, turning orchards and ranches into tract homes and freeways, ruthlessly annexing a handful of smaller towns that stood in its way. The city currently constitutes a large part of what we think of as Silicon Valley, a place whose valley-ness is striking from the car park of the Avaya stadium, where distant shimmering hills are visible on all sides. The city is ringed by office parks – squat white boxes housing perkily named startups that cluster together in the north of the city near towns such as Palo Alto, Cupertino and Mountain View. The sudden arrival of affluent tech bros has left the city with the highest male-to-female ratio of any town in the United States, giving it the unfortunate nickname of “Man Jose”. In recent years an influx of Latino and Asian immigrants have moved to the city, transforming the demography of what used to be one of the whitest cities in the US.
Despite its size the city maintains a parochial intimacy. A few hours after the game, at about 11pm, my companion Howard and I were eating tacos in a small Mexican restaurant downtown. The restaurant was rammed with drunken Saturday night refugees from a cluster of nearby bars. While eating, Howard tipped his head to the right, nonchalantly drawing attention to a smart-looking man standing on his own, waiting to collect an order. “That’s Sam Liccardo,” he said, “the mayor of San Jose.” The mayor shook our hands warmly and chatted to us for a few minutes on his way out. I had the feeling that he would have joined us for dinner if we had extended an invitation.
There seems something morbid, almost nihilistic about naming a soccer team after the primary existential threat to its fans and players. According to a US Geological Survey report in 2000, there is a 70% chance of an earthquake bigger than magnitude 6.7 occurring in or around San Jose before 2030. In other words, it will probably happen before the San Jose Earthquakes next win a major trophy.
San Jose’s football team has been called the Earthquakes since they were first founded in 1974. Since then the team has been through many different permutations, changing their name, ownership and stadium multiple times, playing in a variety of different national soccer leagues that have come and gone. In 1994 they were one of the founding members of MLS. Perhaps the greatest name to pass through the Earthquakes during these years was George Best, who played out two sad years of his incoherent, semi-retirement for the club in the early 1980s. In 1981 my companion Howard’s father had been reluctantly dragged to an Earthquakes game by a friend of his, where he saw George Best score one of the greatest and most mythologised goals in American soccer history against Fort Lauderdale. Howard’s father never went to another game and for both Howard and his father that goal is perhaps the only thing they know about professional soccer.
The Earthquakes have achieved moderate success, winning the MLS Cup twice in 2001 and 2003 and the Supporters Shield (the prize for the team who win the most points in the regular season) in 2005 and 2012. In terms of fame, San Jose are overshadowed by LA Galaxy, their more glamorous rivals 350 miles to the south. The two teams share a bitter and raucous rivalry, affectionately named the ‘California Classico’. The game pits Hollywood against tech, liberalism against white suburban conservatism and washed-up football celebrities against earnest developing world journeymen. They are two teams united only by a single seismic fault line and therefore a shared sense of imminent existential dread. It will come as no surprise to hear that the Ultras live for the California Classico.
This will be the Earthquake’s ninth game in the Avaya stadium, which opened in February. The stadium is the only feature in an otherwise remote and desolate part of the city, a hinterland punctuated by stretches of open and slightly burnt looking sand. The horseshoe-shaped structure faces directly onto the runway of San Jose’s airport and from the stand behind the goal, where the Ultras sit, you are confronted by a constant stream of landing jets, so close that you can just about make out the passengers inside. The team sponsors, Avaya, are a large locally based tech company, a taste of Silicon Valley that feels appropriate. I spent 10 minutes googling Avaya and reading their publicity material and I still have no idea what they do. Another touch of Silicon Valley vernacular can be seen behind the goal, where there are 16 red seats punctuating the sea of blue. They spell out a binary message: “010001110100111101000101010001”. This translates as “GO EQ” and is an allusion to the pre-MLS Earthquakes who used to play in red. The stadium boasts what is apparently America’s largest outdoor bar, a corridor of concession stands that encircles the field like a moat. I couldn’t help but feel the Earthquakes were over-generous with this stat. The bar seemed small and mostly dominated by merchandise stands. As far as I could tell it didn’t feel very outside.
“Fuck your tickets brother, you are standing with us.” The Ultras have been herded by security into a narrow queue by a backdoor entrance to the stadium, the unceremoniously named “supporter’s gate.” We are being made to wait in a coiled, beery mass while one or two police scan the crowd. A teenager wearing a T-shirt that reads “if you played in heaven, we would die to support you” yells something about how this was “fucking typical” of the new stadium. We are the only people in sight.
One by one we are body-searched and allowed into the ground, congregating in the aforementioned “outdoor bar.” Until this point the Ultras had been relatively quiet. Once we have all made it into the bar, however, they explode into life. We are dragged into a fierce, sprawling mosh pit surrounded by a circle of yelling fans. This feels like it might take the place of the game, like it might become the main event of the evening, until an invisible signal goes up and the Ultras dust themselves off and reassemble. Through the bar they march the 300 or so feet to the staircase that leads to their terrace. For the first time they begin to sing:
We are the crazy ultras from the Bay
Fighting in Seattle and LA
We are the crazy ultras from the Bay
Bleeding black and blue every day.
It is difficult to overstate the absurdity of this scene. The concourse of the bar is well lit, scrubbed clean and reminiscent of a shopping mall. Overhead a TANNOY is announcing “the official dentist of the San Jose Earthquakes!” It feels like a flash mob in an airport terminal. As the Ultras march they are lined on either side by fair weather fans, many of whom are families, some wearing Earthquakes shirts but most in plain clothes or Barcelona strips. Their jaws are literally hanging open. All around us people are filming the chaos on their phone. Dan ascended the stairs to the terrace while everyone paused at the bottom. With a megaphone he began another chant:
San Jose Earthquakes
You are my team
Until the day I die
And when that happens
I’ll still be singing
For you up in the sky
Meanwhile the same teenager who was yelling at the security guards in the queue was being dragged away by a guard. He was, however, not going without a fight and Ultras were rushing to his rescue. In a flash Dan had squeezed back down the stairs, embraced the teenager, whispering something in his ear, and began a hushed earnest conversation with the guards, who immediately backed off. He seemed to have a kind of strange magnetic power, an ability to orchestrate events, to augment and diffuse tension at will, all while fantastically drunk. We finally took our positions behind the goal, just as the national anthem was getting started.
Nothing like this was supposed to exist in the US. British people who grew up going to football games are often surprised by the muted and dead-eyed nature of baseball games, basketball games and even NFL games. Whenever I see the A’s, Oakland’s baseball team, I’m surprised by the constant barrage of instructions for the fans, which blares out from Tannoys between incessant commercials. Teams will often have just one chant that never changes. At an A’s game the fans sing, “Let’s go Oakland!” over and over again. If there were away supporters they would chant back “Let’s go Yankees/Red Sox/Royals etc…” This season I’ve fallen in love with the Golden State Warriors, the wonderful and preposterous local basketball team, who are making a legitimate claim to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Their fans are understandably gleeful and raucous, but astonishingly they all always wear the same yellow T-shirt with the words “strength in numbers”. I once asked how these fans knew what to wear and was told that they were each handed T-shirts during the game and dutifully wore them. This felt an uncomfortable level of conformity.
Anyone who emigrates finds himself or herself perpetually playing the role of amateur anthropologist. You are doomed to draw up theories about the differences between your new and old homes only to junk them the next day when you realise they don’t quite cut it. So often the difference between Britain and the US is intangible and ethereal, more like a mood than something you can photograph or count. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin down the difference between British and American sporting cultures – wondering, also, if it’s a set of factors unique to football rather than to Britain. There is a creative insurgency to football support in Britain, a willingness to boo managers and players and to hate (and I mean really, passionately hate) the team that you love, from its distant global owners to its starting eleven. Perhaps it’s the suburban nature of the stadiums (or their tendency to pack up and move across the country with no notice) or the competition from a variety of different sports or even the stop-start nature of American sports themselves that produces this mute and conformist culture. Maybe it’s the understandable lack of away travel. These are good places to start, but they only go some way towards accounting for differences that feel hard-wired and elemental.
Before this game my only experience of watching football in America had been in strange Californian sports bars, watching Premier League games at absurd hours. This season I watched a handful of matches at Commonwealth, a British bar that opened early on Saturdays (a 5.30pm kickoff is at 9.30am in California). The American attendees are often quiet, graceful hipsters, whose references are just as likely to be Eduardo Galeano as John Terry. At Commonwealth I watched the 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Spurs that handed Leicester the title, surrounded by American Spurs fans replete with shirts and scarves who were relaxed and jovial, mostly detached from the momentous events taking place on the pitch. Outside of these scattered nodes of interest, the odd bar or immigrant café, football barely leaves a trace in California.
For these reasons the San Jose Ultras and their counterparts across MLS are a doubly strange phenomenon. They have neither the elite, genteel sensibilities of the majority of US soccer fans nor the tendency for polite conformism that governs the behaviour of baseball or basketball fans. Unlike most soccer fans in the US they were not Europhiles. I tried talking to Dan before the game about Romanian football (Romania would shortly kick off the opening game of Euro 2016 against France), which he quickly shut down. “I don’t give a shit about them. The Earthquakes are my team.” I had arrived at this game not knowing the result of the Champions League final, which had finished a few hours earlier. I had recorded the game and was desperate to avoid the result, but fatalistic about my chances of doing so. I needn’t have worried. I would have been surprised if more than 50 of the Ultras could have named even one team in the final. This was a very different crowd from Commonwealth, which would have been packed all day with Americans in Real Madrid shirts. Aside from Dan, most of the crowd were white, working-class Americans with a smattering of Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants here and there. While tailgating, my friend Howard noted with amazement that, “aside from the football, this a typical San Jose crowd. This is San Jose. Some of these people probably went to my high school.”
So what on earth was going on here?
The game itself was a wretched, dreadful 0-0 draw. It was as woeful and anaesthetising as the crudest US stereotype about football. The Earthquakes spent 90 minutes trying to pass out from the back against a defensive Dallas, a totally pointless exercise for a team unable to string together more than one pass at a time. It was Van Gaal’s Manchester United with a single digit pass completion rate. Both the Earthquakes and Dallas were missing a handful of their starters who were on Copa America duty, an absence that sucked the oxygen out of the game.
It didn’t help that the match coincided with one of the most important Golden State Warriors games of the season. The Warriors were stumbling uncharacteristically in the semi-final playoffs for the championship and were playing a crucial, must-win game in Oklahoma. As a result, there were many empty seats across the ground. Even a few wayward Ultras were seen glancing at their phones during the game. At half-time the final stages of the Warriors game were projected on the big screen, before being displaced by a slew of Avaya adverts (resulting in a chorus of boos from the crowd). Ten minutes into the second half the final fifteen seconds of the game returned to the screen, confirming that the Warriors had won and eliciting the biggest cheer of the night.
Neither the turgid quality of the football nor the extraordinary Warriors win seemed to faze the Ultras, however. For the entire ninety minutes they were a blistering, deafening wall of noise. Everything was conducted by Dan, who used a megaphone to cycle the crowd through eight or ten different chants, while helpers bought him pint after pint of beer. I’m not sure he ever once looked at the pitch. Twenty or so giant black and blue flags were circulated freely among the Ultras. At one point a shirtless, beery man, probably in his late forties, gave a delighted-looking Howard a flag the size of a large dining table and told him to wave it. It was a profound contrast with the sedate and seated scattering of families, who seemed to be watching the Ultras as much as they were watching the game.
The Ultras felt curiously abstracted from the game. Attempts on goal were preciously rare, but seemed to elicit no change in mood. It’s hard to tell what would have happened if either team had scored, but it was hard to imagine that the jumping, screaming fans had an extra gear they were keeping in reserve. The crowd didn’t ebb and flow with the game and, if anything, the usual see-sawing waves of hope and anxiety triggered by chances on goal were more pronounced among the non-Ultras fans to our left and right. Towards the end of the game I began to wonder how many of the devoted fans we had met would be able to name the Earthquake’s starting XI. At times the Ultras reminded me of Orsino from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, more in love with the idea of being in love than with the object of his desire.
And this is the strange paradox of the Ultras. While most Europeans share a deep familial love for their team, one that has evolved through their life, many Ultras seem to have found themselves smitten, confused and suddenly lovesick in early adulthood or even middle age. It is a romantic rather than a fraternal love, one that is just as conditional and combustible as the latter. The Ultras’ favourite chant, the one that is most commonly sung, captures this sense of sudden, life-changing discovery:
One day from out of nowhere
I fell in love with you.
My life was changed forever
My world is black and blue
I’ll follow you all over
And sing your name with pride.
The voices of the Ultras
Will never leave your side.
This sounds like a theme song for a mid-life crisis. Most of the Ultras will have grown up going to see the Warriors, the Raiders, the A’s and the Sharks, in households where soccer was an exotic unfamiliar sport. Almost all were born before the Earthquakes became an MLS team in 1994. Only a new team and a new sport can offer this kind of cult-like, transformative experience. During the tailgate I met a sweet and slightly lost-looking portly man with a ponytail who had been to most of the Earthquakes’ away games in the last few years (a remarkable feat in a nation twice the size of the European Union). He told me that he had barely seen a football game until a few years ago.
The Ultras stayed for a while after full-time, celebrating the dismal 0-0 draw like they had won the MLS Cup. For many this was clearly the high point of their week and they wanted to get their pound of fandom flesh. It almost felt like most of crowd hadn’t realised the game was over. Thirty minutes after the game had finished the Ultras’ drums were still radiating out from the stadium – audible through the warm night from the dusty car park.
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