American Outlaws and old-school U.S. soccer collegiality

The controversy about the American Outlaws and the upcoming USA-Mexico game in USA-Mexicoville (also known as Columbus) has gone through three stages:

1. Multiple reports said Outlaws from Seattle had basically taken over planning crowd activities for the USA-Mexico game. Columbus fans, who take special pride in their quadrennial duties of welcoming Mexico to a stadium with a history of inglorious moments for the visitors, were miffed. Many other U.S. fans were miffed on their behalf.

2. The Outlaws, backed by U.S. Soccer, said it was all much ado about nothing. All incorrect. Internet rumor and hearsay.

But before you could say “This reporter promises to be more trusting and less vigilant in the future” (Simpsons quote I swear I almost tweeted as soon as I saw the denials), people were calling b.s. That leads us to …

3. “Hey, if you’re going to deny something, you’d better be sure you took care of the witnesses.”

Dan Loney has summed up the situation quite well, and Bill Archer chimed in with some informative comments from his own digging around.

So as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a bit skeptical about the conclusion that this was all misinformation. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding, inasmuch as Columbus fans could reasonably be expected to interpret the conference call and other communications of the past month as anything other than, “Yeah, we’re going to tell you guys how to do things.”

And I’m with Dan in the sense that the whole notion of having “capos”  feels artificial to me. Maybe I was harsh when I suggested that it was one step away from having cheerleaders. Maybe I wasn’t.

I can draw one parallel to college basketball. The crowd at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium went significantly downhill when it started to rely on “cheer sheets.” Sure, a few things were pre-planned — the Twinkies tossed on the floor upon Dennis Scott’s introduction didn’t magically appear in the ancient arena. But the best cheers sprang organically from the crowd, and Duke fans of my (long-ago) era took pride in that. Funneling a crowd’s creative power through a handful of know-it-alls in the crowd just dulls the creativity.

But something else is getting lost — something more specific to soccer.

In the mid-90s, soccer fans in this country were all in the same boat. The sport was derided, and supposedly intelligent media folks would all tell you this country would never support legitimate pro soccer.

The Internet was helping fans come together. My first experience meeting serious soccer fans was on the North American Soccer mailing list, where people shared A-League and USISL match reports along with some debate over the issues of the day.

And yes, we had plenty of issues. U.S. leagues were experimenting with every manner of rule change under the sun. Teams that fouled too much in the USISL would concede an in-game shootout attempt. Kick-ins, bigger goals and incomprehensible bonus points in the standings were all on the table.

We also had a couple of agitators, most notably the guy who ran a site with the novel concept of rounding up satellite TV listings so people could actually find soccer games to watch — maybe an A-League game on a regional network or Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan on some obscure channel. Valuable public service, but it’s safe to say he made his share of enemies on the list.

The reason he stands out is that the rest of the conversation was collegial. People argued rule changes — and, yes, promotion/relegation came up. But we knew we were all trying to maintain a foothold for the sport in a hostile environment. That was a group effort. List members would argue for traditional European systems, then drive to an Atlanta Ruckus game.

Perhaps I’m overromanticizing, or perhaps I’m channeling Grumpy Old Man. But I think we’ve lost a bit of our belief in common goals. And our sense of history. Or perhaps our sense that supporter culture should debated and discussed among the grass roots, not enforced from the top down.