Last Sunday, with a right-footed fake five yards outside the box, Clint Dempsey created the space he needed to curl in with his left foot the type of shot that could have originated from any Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese or other globally-recognized soccer star. It was the kind of goal that makes Americans believe they should be able to compete with anyone -- particularly when that goal comes against Germany, a perennial World Cup favorite, and especially when that is the winning goal. "But," the buzzkiller in the room will inevitably and not-incorrectly reply, "it was just a friendly. Germany wasn't playing a majority of their best players. The U.S. got trounced by Belgium less than a week before. Did I mention it was just a friendly?" American soccer fans struggle with the tension between our arrogant aspirations and mediocre actuality.
This debate is not unique to the Germany match. Most everything about American soccer -- from results and roster changes to coaching decisions and controversies -- must be put in the context of what American soccer is, has been and is trying to become. American sports, generally speaking, revolve around being exceptional, and American sports fans accept nothing less. As a nation known for its hubris, some fans hate to hear this more than being reminded we have been knocked out of the last two World Cups by Ghana, a nation with a GDP between Nebraska and New Mexico. But, the fact remains that the story of U.S. soccer is still one of context.
Depending on how close your ear is to the soccer world, you may hear rumblings of the "growth of soccer in America" or the "growing soccer fanbase" or similar vagaries. It's tough to know precisely what these phrases mean -- which makes it easy to mistake them for convincing arguments -- but it's clear something is going on with soccer in America: More people are watching it. There was an honest-to-god bidding war for English Premier League TV rights this year, with NBC emerging the victor for a not-insignificant $250 million over three years. More to the point, though, fans are organically coming together, uniting over their love of the sport. The focus is no longer on merely watching, but on growing the American soccer experience into something that doesn't require context, but rather speaks for itself.
It was this quest to find the American soccer voice that I found the American Outlaws, the grassroots U.S. soccer fan club.
I tailgated with the Outlaws outside RFK Stadium before the match against Germany. This is two months after going to Mexico City with the Outlaws for a World Cup qualifier, which some of us declared to be the most memorable moments of our lives. We swore we would never forget each other and what we experienced. The Outlaws' stated goal is to "Unite and Strengthen," and their founders spoke multiple times to me about their desire to create a familial atmosphere amongst its members.
Despite their humble roots, the Outlaws are now a larger family than even the most culturally insensitive Mormon joke could justify; there were close to a thousand almost farcically patriotic Outlaws at this tailgate alone (jerseys with the name "Seal Team" and number 6, for example). So, when I go up to the check-in table to get my all-you-can-eat-and-drink wristband, the Outlaw I once hugged for safety (beside a shield of Mexican riot cops at perhaps the most storied soccer stadium in the world two months before) is unable to recall who I am. Before the match against Germany, everyone was still considering how to contextualize the thrashing at the hands of Belgium five days earlier. Like American soccer itself, the Outlaws are learning that once you reach a certain threshold, you can't be all the same things you once were. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
* * *
Back in late March, in downtown Mexico City the day of the US-Mexico World Cup qualifier, the American Outlaws founders tell me how the premier U.S. Soccer fan group got started: "In September, 2007, we brought like 50 people from Lincoln, Nebraska to the U.S.-Brazil game in Chicago. We made shirts, business cards, had a banner, a website, and just went after it," Brian Hexsel, the chapter chairman and travel manager for American Outlaws recalled the day of the Mexico match. This was how American Outlaws began, and the co-founders, Justin Brunken and Korey Donahoo, agreed they could never have foreseen the growth that would come of it. American Outlaws now has 79 chapters across the United States with 8,000 paying members.
Hexsel explained how American Outlaws grew: "Sam's Army [another U.S. fan group] was around, and we were big U.S. fans and would go to games. [Sam's Army] was there for the big games, but nowhere for the not-so-big games... We asked them if we could help, and we never got a response. So then we told them we were going to do our own thing and didn't get a response. So that's when we decided to do the bus to Chicago."
To Brunken and Hexsel, there was no unifying group bringing American soccer fans together. Soccer was even less popular in the U.S. in 2007 than it is today, and with Twitter and Facebook barely in existence, fans had few ways to connect with each other. "There was this little niche here, this little niche there, but nothing bringing everyone together. We thought we could change that by, one, [local] chapters, and also helping people get to games as easily as possible through packages, United Airline deals, hotel deals, and so on," Brunken explained.
Yes, the perks of being an Outlaw extend beyond the soccer stadium. For the membership fee of $24 per year (which comes with a American Apparel t-shirt and American flag bandana), members have access to United Airline discounts and hotel deals when and where matches are held, in addition to permanent discounts with Avis rental car and BigSoccer.com. Brunken, Hexsel and Donahoo are clearly proud they can offer members these benefits, but only insofar as it helps them get to games looking their best. "You sign up for the travel package and you just show up. If you're doing the hotel package, you get picked up at the airport, you show up at the hotel and everything is handled," Hexsel says with a clear note of pride. "It's all handled."
Donahoo, who let the others do most of the talking, made a rare entrant into the discussion: "I think it bears mentioning that there were packages around before us put together by companies, but we're fans who aren't making money on this. We want to get fans here, and we aren't trying to make money. We did it the way we know our fans and our dudes like it." Hexsel starts to nod vehemently. "That's the difference from five years ago. The group [I came down to Mexico City with] before, they were just in it to make money. We go back to our mission statement, for everything we do, 'Unite and Strengthen', and that's the biggest thing." The biggest group of American fans ever gathered in Mexico City, organized almost entirely by the Outlaws.
The uniting begins on a gorgeous, 75-degree day at Corona, a bar (unaffiliated with the beer) about five blocks from the Marriott where most of the Outlaws are staying, on the main boulevard in downtown Mexico City. It wouldn't be hard to tell -- based on pasty skin color -- who is here for the Outlaws pregame party, even if they weren't dressed in Uncle Sam costumes, draped in American flags, or more traditionally, wearing American soccer jerseys and bandanas.
The divide is clear, particularly to the young Corona employee, who fervently encourages me in limited English to go to the top floor which, even though I'm only 20 minutes late, is mostly full with Outlaws. Some of the costumes are creative: the red, white and blue sombreros are particularly confrontational, and serious credit goes to the fans who wore American-flag construction helmets, knowing the Mexican fans' penchant for projectiles within the Azteca stands.
Whenever a chapter leader comes up the stairs, the entire bar knows, because the other chapter leaders jump out of their seats and initiate a complex orchestra of shout-greetings and bro-hugs. They're not the normal bro-hugs that involve the clasped hand/half-hug, but something altogether stranger and more elaborate, like a Penn & Teller magic trick, which I never spatially unreeled no matter how many times I witnessed them. It's best described as a bro-hug executed with a BAC approaching .3, but with the precision of something practiced when sober. They've clearly done this many times before.
"You go to all these games and you see people that you see at all the [previous] games," Brunken tells me. "It's like you're best friends even though they live in like Seattle or New York or Miami." At one point, I worry for Brunken's slight stature as a much larger man gives him a bear hug that would likely cause a dog to explode. "We started this hashtag, #AOfamily. It really is."
* * *
I didn't know what kind of buses to expect. Prison buses to prevent injury? School buses? Do they have school buses in Mexico? Are they also yellow? These are the questions that go through your mind as you wait for buses you know will come with armed security guards.
In fact, they are modern coach buses with bathrooms and drivers and everything. Oh, and there are groups of Federales, the grown-ass men who fight drug cartels when they aren't protecting rowdy American soccer fans. They're rather relaxed, laughing, joking, even taking pictures of us; this is probably their leave from Ciudad Juarez. Boarding the buses marks the first time the Outlaws reach full voice. The chants begin: "USA, USA, F**kin' USA", "America, F**k Yeah", "Estados Unidos," and other jingoist songs you might expect from grown men dressed as Uncle Sam. Tourists stop to take pictures with the most outrageously bedecked Outlaws. A few ambitious teenagers dressed as euro-hipsters taunt some of the Outlaws for sport, who taunt back playfully in an elaborate verbal dance Reggie Miller and John Starks would be proud of.
We have a formidable convoy: three buses completely full of Outlaws, multiple pick-up trucks with armed Federales, and at least four motorcycles (hard to count, particularly with their leapfrogging maneuvers) of what seem to be traffic police and plain-clothes units. Initially, the Outlaws have no organized method to express their awe over what we quickly realize is our motorcade, which is stopping traffic on our behalf. Then, what comes to be the Outlaws' collective method of expression, the chant and/or song, kicks in. The convoy runs a red light: "America, F**K YEAH!" The motorcycle escort stops a bus packed full of commuters with some exhausted workers sitting on others' laps due to lack of space: "USA Ain't Nuthin' to f**k with!" Another red light run, another chant. Nothing can stop us now, we have the one thing we didn't expect in Mexico: help. A chorus of "Everywhere We Go" rings out, and the bus is in full voice:
"Everywhere we go/ People wanna know/ Who we are/ So we tell them/ We are the U.S./ The mighty f**kin' U.S.!"
An hour and a half later, we are still on the bus and the Outlaws are quiet. Our police escort was no longer working its Matrix-like power, stopping automobiles with silent gestures. We're stuck in the infamous Mexico City gridlock. As 7:30 passed, everyone wondered if we would make the 8:30 kickoff, a thought that hadn't crossed our minds when we boarded our bus an hour and a half ago. Estadio Azteca is still nowhere in sight. One Outlaw mutters that missing The Star Spangled Banner would be "a f**king tragedy." Several sullenly nod in agreement, particularly the gentleman wearing a six-foot American flag as if it was an actual article of clothing, too distraught at the prospect to respond.
While the bus stood helplessly still, our escort had been clearing a path. Suddenly, an entire lane cleared, a perfectly choreographed blocking scheme that sprung the running back free in the open field. The bus rounds a corner, and suddenly, as if Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec God of Monstrosities, answered our distress calls, Estadio Azteca towers above us. The first chant when Azteca appears is the loudest of all:
"This is where we die / This is where we die!"
The words of the chant betray their faces; the Outlaws are grinning ear to ear, exactly where they want to be.
* * *
Outside the stadium there are middle fingers, middle fingers everywhere, pointed in all directions, for variety, but always at us. It seems every Mexican's first reaction is to tell us, "F**k you, and f**k where you've come from" in that singular gesture only the middle finger can provide. We understand it, and we bask in it. The hatred affirms our presence. One middle-finger-bearer sports a Yankees hat, and an Outlaw yells at him (although he cannot hear), "You're wearing our country on your head!" (The AO-Boston contingent frowns.) The singing continues from inside the bus as we circle Azteca to our designated entrance, like a vulture hoping for its prey to drop dead.
The bus meanders to the chosen parking spot, which is completely encircled by hundreds of riot cops -- standing shoulder-to-shoulder, donning helmets and riot shields which land on the asphalt with the force of Leonidas' shield, but without the noble mission. Instead, these 300 are protecting a bunch of drunken Americans who toast dominance, particularly the kind that occurs off the soccer field (more than one Outlaw is wearing a "Back-To-Back World War Champs" hat, a slogan which would be particularly prominent at the friendly against Germany two months later for obvious reasons, although none seem to have specifically recalled the Zimmermann Telegram for the Mexico match). I'm struck by how dedicated these Mexican police are to protecting us.
The Outlaws are inspired by the circumstances. Crowds gather, again to take pictures. Traditionally, fans are the people who go to games to watch the spectacle, to be on the periphery and serve as a two-dimensional backdrop. But here, we're a spectacle to a stadium that tends not to attract perceptible away crowds. This is what Azteca, Mexico City and, more to the point, the Outlaws give any fan the opportunity to be. From the tourists taking pictures, police, Mexican fans, photographers bouncing around our section during the game, and ESPN cameras consistently panning to us during the match, we get more attention than any of us could get elsewhere. Even the coverage of the game reflects this. The Outlaws give you a chance to be a part of the story. This isn't our 15 minutes, but it's as close to it as a vacation can buy.
When I asked the founders what their favorite memory of being an Outlaw is, Donahoo recounted The March before the epic Algeria game during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa: "On the march to the stadium, when the bus went through before the game, the players' bus happened to go through our march, and [then-coach] Bob Bradley talked about it after the game and he started crying, or teared up talking about it, so that was like, the most concrete evidence that what we do matters." Just like any fan, the Outlaws want to matter, even if just in some small way.
But what the Outlaws have unintentionally managed to do is something bigger. They've provided the average fan the opportunity to scoff at anonymity and become a part of the narrative.
Escorted through the concrete fortress, we arrived at our section in the very upper corner of the stadium. Our voices could never be heard by the players, impossibly drowned by the hundred thousand Mexicans and the distance between us and the field. But this did not deter the Outlaws. They come and they sing, every game. It is what they do.
"That's the best part about this whole thing, the family and the culture that we…" Hexsel stops himself. "Well, it's not even us that created it, it's our members that created it. And that's what we're all about is our members guiding us to soccer." The Outlaws, in many ways, are emblematic of the apparent growth of American soccer. They laid the infrastructure to make being a fan easier, and now they are more popular than ever.
The match was played and no goals were scored, which was a fantastic result for the underdog United States. The Outlaws sang louder than ever, and the Mexicans responded by showering us with beers. The Mexican fans expressed their displeasure in this way immediately after the final whistle, like an Aztec god turned on some kind of a beer-faucet in disgust. It was a hippy's dream: beer replacing bricks or bullets. The police instructed the American fans to leave immediately, perhaps fearing what would replace the beers when their supply was exhausted.
As I made my way down the narrow stadium stairs, my fear of heights kicked in, causing my legs to tremble. I took one more step, and the Corona-rainclouds instantaneously lifted. Thank god, they ran out of beer. I looked up, and an Outlaw stood at the edge of the stairway, facing me, grinning like Alien from Spring Breakers without the metallic grill, a giant American flag spread across his shoulders like the wings of an outstretched eagle, shielding the stairway as beers spat onto the soaked flag. "Don't worry, bro, Old Glory's got you covered." Two months later, after every U.S. goal was scored, a much larger flag was unfurled over the entire section I was in, which proved useful as the Outlaws decided to shower ourselves in our own beers after goals. It seems the American flag is a perpetually useful beer-towel.
* * *
At both of these matches, I was crouched at the nexus of ironic jingoism, the precipice of chaos, fully evolved broism, and the continued evolution of a sport I truly loved. The absurdity made me acutely aware of the situation's larger context: That these Outlaws are, at the moment and for better or worse, the embodiment of American soccer. There was so much under the flag that, despite myself, I had come to respect. Although the Outlaws represent a country which currently has a bit of an identity crisis, they know who they are. America's young soccer culture finally has a voice.
On the way out of Estadio Azteca in Mexico, we sang, we got hit by coins, belts, soda and water bottles. We boarded the bus and sang "Nobody likes us/ We don't care", the modern American Anthem, as the police escort halted enraged locals on our speedy journey home.
The Outlaws, like American soccer in general, require context. Everything they do is within the lens of where they come from and the fact that they love soccer enough to travel great distances to watch it and sing about it. Maybe one day, American soccer will be so popular that American fans will be an accurate cross-section of our society in general -- that is, too nebulous, vague and diverse to categorize. But that is not now.
Today, the Outlaws are your self-appointed representatives to the global sport. If you don't like it, the U.S. plays Panama in Seattle on June 11 in an important World Cup qualifier. It's expected to be the largest gathering of Outlaws in their history. The Outlaws will keep singing and growing. The question for American soccer is, and has always been, who else will pay attention?