Tag Archives: MLS news

Away Day – On the Road to LA with San Jose Earthquakes, 1906 Ultras

29 May

When San Jose Earthquakes striker, Alan Gordon, scored the winner in the last minute of stoppage time against LA Galaxy in Los Angeles in mid-May, he peeled off his strip in celebration. By then, many of the 1906 Ultras, San Jose’s wild band of traveling supporters, were already stripped to the waist. In the space of seventeen minutes, the Quakes had overcome a two-goal deficit. Gordon’s flash sent the Ultras into overdrive. The final whistle sounded. The Quakes were top of the league. David Beckham and the LA Galaxy were in the black hole at the bottom.

You’re in Last Place, chanted the Ultras at their enemies in the Angel City Brigade, the Los Angeles supporters group, now in a state of collective silent shock behind the goal. The 1906 Ultras had claimed them. They serenaded the Angelinos. You Only Sing When You’re Winning, the taunt to the tune of La Guantanamera.

Traveling to your team’s road games is part of soccer fan culture. Call it the “away day.” The Ultras set out from San Jose at 6.45AM treating themselves to a breakfast of tequila, vodka, whisky and beer. Their leader, Dan, in an email to the group before the departure warned, “Control your drinking! If people are sloppy drunk when we get to LA, they will be left in the bus. I guarantee you that.” When Dan speaks, everyone listens. He is the top boy. Running a successful away day falls on his shoulders – the bus, the accommodation, the supplies and the tickets. “Being an Ultra is a way of life,” he says, “it is 24/7.”

The term Ultras says it all: hardcore supporters at the edge, well above the norm of regular fan. San Jose’s Ultras are a band of brothers and sisters. Their roll call includes lawyers, software engineers, union organizers, retail workers – folks from all walks of life. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Romanians mix with suburban American kids. Some help design the banners seen at the Quakes games. Others carry the flags. Lyricists compose their songs and chants. Their drummer pounds the beat in the bleachers. All together now, everyone singing, We are the crazy Ultras from the Bay, fighting in Seattle and LA.

The bus finally arrived in Los Angeles. The Galaxy’s stadium security was waiting.  Keep the “hate LA” chants down to a minimum was the request. But it was never going to happen. This was NorCal v SoCal. San Jose was here to rub them the wrong way for the full ninety-minutes. They never stopped singing. The drum pounded, Beat LA. It was too much for some in the Angel City Brigade. Security and cops did a good job keeping out the occasional mad Angelino throwing himself at the cordon. The odd gang fingers flashed and rolled. The middle finger was everywhere. Some of the language would have curled grandma’s toes.

Post-game, the police helicopter swooped overhead, the light beam spotting the 1906 Ultras below, now in full war whoop dancing on the conquered turf. Their ring was jubilant. They locked shoulders in a bouncing circle having claimed their scalp. It was a Hollywood moment, a fantastic ending. The spotlight followed the bouncing bus out of the stadium. Someone had a phone raised in his hands – Chris Wondolowski, the Quakes star striker who had missed the game after being called up to play for the US Men’s National Team, was on the line. The Ultras broke into song You are my Wondo, my Wondolowski. You make me happy, when skies are grey.

The influence of supporter groups is growing throughout American soccer. Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Portland’s Timber Army pull huge numbers. The New York Red Bulls boasts three such groups. Visit an MLS stadium and you see how pivotal the phenomenon is to bringing energy to the event. This transfers to the players on the field. It is a marked contrast to other US sports where spectators can be sedentary and have to be fed prompts – don’t forget to cheer. At soccer, you go along to participate. You go along to jump and sing. You don’t need anyone to remind you as to why you are there.

Major League Soccer is now embracing supporters groups as a vehicle for expanding its brand. “At first MLS rejected the idea of hardcore supporters groups, “ says Dan of the 1906 Ultras, “they catered to soccer moms and kids. Lately they are trying to appeal to fan groups. However they are trying to keep 100% control. I am working with Ultras to keep the groups independent from the front offices and the league.”

The day after the night before and the long trek back to NorCal. A deep sense of satisfaction kept the hangover storms beneath the blue horizon. And Ultras talk was already springing forward to the next Quakes home game on June 30. The visitors – LA Galaxy and the Angel City Brigade.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read his memoir, Kick the Balls, the tale of the worst kids team in global soccer history.


The Dirty Game

17 Apr
Soccer has never been a clean game and never will be. It’s original form allowed hacking. Long before the soccer craft was engineered for style and class, hunks of meat took chops at each other. Reputations were built around violence and threats. Men whose shadow was aggression found the soccer field inviting, a safe place to kick the living daylights out of a fellow mortal. Getting sent off was almost heroic.

Football slowly evolved. The gene attached to success excited players more than stiffing opponents. It became the primal motive. Talent appeared, style dressed, someone called it the beautiful game. Emerging came folks like Pele and Maradona, the dominants of the footballer species. Their prodigies of Messi and Ronaldo continue to push things forwards.

The single-minded hacker was to go the way of the Neanderthals. But before entering the museum, some took the opportunity to commit one final assault on the playmaker, the new man. Pele was kicked off the field during the 1966 World Cup Finals in England. He wept in shock. He vowed never to play again in a World Cup. Four years later, he painted soccer beautiful at Mexico ‘70: beauty over brute. In 1983, Spain’s Andoni Goikoetxea, affectionately known as the Butcher of Bilbao, was to carve up Diego Maradona. Having sliced the Argentine’s ankle to shreds in a coup de main, the Butcher was reported to have displayed his victim’s ruined cleat in a glass case on top of his TV set. Maradona recovered to dazzle the world with his genius, and Hand of God, winning the 1986 World Cup.

But examples of the nasty, brutish and short can still be had for those who savor a bit of the old school menace. On Saturday during a US Major League Soccer match, New York Red Bulls defender, Rafa Marquez, clobbered San Jose Earthquakes midfielder, Shea Salinas, with a mauling and a thinly veiled boot to the chest. Broken clavicle. Marquez’s rap goes back to the 2002 World Cup Finals when he head-butted (above) American striker Cobi Jones into the following week, a crack that ranks as one of the most brutal in World Cup history.

Check out below, Marquez breaking Salinas’s collar bone in four places

Kick Alan Black on Twitter

Relegation – Not Only The Titanic Sinks

13 Apr

MLS coaches go to bed nightly without fearing relegation. Most world soccer leagues operate on a system where the worst teams over a season fall into a lower league, replaced by the best coming up from below. Apply the word disaster to the relegated. Those going down lose revenues, a fire sale of their best players likely follows. Woe betide! Fans are stricken. Relegation can mean the wilderness. Some teams never return from the depths.

Think Titanic. The English Premier League season is coming to a close. Five teams are locked in a death struggle at the bottom of the table. Every point gained, every goal scored, every goal conceded could make all the difference. The players are desperate. They throw every ounce of effort into hope. An animal threatened can be dangerous. So it is with failing soccer teams. Teams at the top of the table competing for honors do not relish facing those sides staring at oblivion. Survival is the greatest motivator. See the proof in relegation threatened Wigan’s shock victory over defending champions Manchester United on Wednesday. History is filled with great escapes. On the last day of the season some teams will survive the drop, while others go under. It is pure emotion.

Will US domestic soccer ever have a relegation/promotion system? Not in the near future. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, an executive at MLS, “…it’s a complicated issue.” Where to begin? The US soccer market is not stable or big enough to sustain such a system. Lower leagues like the NASL are volatile. Teams come and go. MLS owners are invested in a franchise system that pays to play. Try selling relegation to potential investors. Your millions could be sunk by the poor performance of temperamental employees on a soccer field.  Methinks not.

Critics abound. US soccer without an up and down escalator undermines the development of talent. Teams and players with little to play for are not motivated. There is no fire under their butts. No fear. It does not bring out the best. And competitiveness suffers. “ I disagree,” says Rodriguez, “In sixteen years of our league, we have had nine different champions. That speaks to an overall competitiveness, top to bottom, that is probably unrivaled by any other league in the world.” MLS’s preferred option for motivation is a play-off system like other US sports. Last year, with two weeks left in the season, ten teams were still competing for seven playoff spots. Competitive? Yes; but certainly not relegation’s drama of life and death.

Kick Alan Black on Twitter and read his soccer column every Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle.