Supporters’ Clubs of USMNT, MLS, and USL: Vulgarity, Hooliganism, and Discrimination

By Patrick Salkeld

Soccer started in the United States during the 1860s before the formal establishment of England’s Football Association. As professional clubs and leagues developed, they turned into businesses that relied on spectators to purchase tickets and attend the matches in order to make a profit. Without this commitment and support, teams collapsed—for instance, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion of MLS in 2002. American soccer fans provided more than just revenue—they revolutionized the atmosphere within stadiums into a boisterous stream of chants and bouncing on the bleachers, advocated certain values to their fellow followers, and promoted the sport nationwide. Fans formed supporters’ clubs, or ultras—“very active fans who…spur on their team and make a better atmosphere to support ‘their’ team creatively and to the best of their ability”—but as their passions increased, it occasionally led to physical confrontations, sexism, and behavior deemed illegal by soccer executives.[1] 

United States Men’s National Team (USMNT)

In the early days of the World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team largely lacked the support seen today, but performed well. It achieved third place in the inaugural tournament in 1930 hosted by Uruguay. Over the next twenty years, it failed to move past the first stage, but in 1950, it beat the English National Team, which many considered the best club in the world. Soccer created a culture war within the borders of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans during the Cold War. Politics and globalization played a significant role with the rise and popularity of the conservative movement, the Cold War, and the resulting aversion to immigrants and foreign influences.[2] It forced people to decide whether they wanted to continue with the status quo or align themselves with something “un-American” and possibly be perceived as traitors (or even Communists). When the North American Soccer League collapsed in 1984, it left a vacuum in the lives of the sport’s enthusiasts. In 1988, the nation received its first opportunity to prove itself as a soccer community. When it chose the United States to host the 1994 World Cup, FIFA hoped to extend its reach into and gain a new venue for support. Even though it disgruntled several European nations, the organization stuck to its original decision and allowed the move to continue. As the United States prepared for the 1994 World Cup, a soccer revivalism arose and Americans became more enthralled with the sport. Pride and support for their National Team bound them together and for some, “[it] embodies the very soul of the country.”[3]

This first generation of fans grew up playing and watching soccer during NASL’s existence. They revived their fandom at the 1994 World Cup events and understood how to attend matches and what to do during them, because they watched the actions of European fans on television or in-person at games internationally. Yet, the post-1994 breed needed an education on soccer culture.[4] Because they share a common language—soccer—and a passion for it, the year-round fans failed (and continue to this day) to understand the fluctuation of their fellow followers’ obsession with the sport and how they only seemed to profess it every four years when it comes time for the World Cup. While the majority of Americans put their excitement behind them after it ended, thousands continued to express their fervor.

Immediately after the tournament, Mark Spacone and John Wright formed Sam’s Army with the mission to “make soccer games a more enjoyable experience for everyone.” After they attended a World Cup match between the United States and Switzerland at the Detroit Silverdome, they recognized the need to improve the atmosphere around them. Not enough Americans cheered, wore apparel that advertised their country, nor even attended the games when the USMNT played—supporters of the opposing teams filled the stadiums. The founders created a set of match guidelines to which it required all members of the organization to abide in order to further increase their growing memberships and uphold the sanctity of their values—such as standing the entire match, wearing red, positive sporting behavior, and participating in songs and cheers. All of these criteria instilled a raucous attitude amongst the fans in the stadium, which in turn helped pump up the players for whom they cheered. At their first match, Steve Sampson (head coach of the USMNT) called Sam’s Army “the best fans in the country right now for soccer.”[5]

In 2006, another group formed and soon rivaled their club. Korey Donahoo, Justin Brunken, and Ben Cohoon witnessed the same problems at matches held in the United States between the USMNT and other nations, and disliked the unorganized nature of their predecessors. They strove to establish a better atmosphere and encourage the following of their country. The three men transformed their small party into a national organization called American Outlaws (AO). They picked the name because they “felt we were ‘outlaws’ of the sports world; supporting a sport [soccer] that most people didn’t know much about” since they lived in Nebraska. Their membership grew rapidly and they encouraged others to form local chapters in every state (and in some cities outside of the United States, such as London). AO evolved into the most popular unofficial fan base for the national team—they even sponsored members of the organization to travel to South Africa and Brazil when those countries hosted the World Cup. They met in bars where many drank heavily in pre-game celebration before walking to the stadium. Unfortunately, the intoxicated and boisterous atmosphere led to problems within the structure.[6]

While in its code of conduct it specifically prohibited “racism, discrimination, sexism, homophobia, and disrespect towards fellow fans or fans of other teams,” sexism and sexual harassment continue to exist. Tanya Keith, the former president of an AO chapter in Iowa and previous member of the AO, met inappropriate behavior, like “feeling [her] up,” when she traveled to California and joined the local branch at its bar. She notified the executive officers of the entire organization, but received a response denigrating her “bad [comments]” and made her the person at fault for expressing her concerns. Members nationwide even sent her hate mail. Previously, she also created a Facebook page called the “AO Riot Girls,” but the national leaders forced her to remove their abbreviation because they “didn’t want their name on a female-only group.” Other women suffered similar treatment when they attended these sponsored events. Racism also became a widespread problem within the group, and the founding members preached against jingoism and negative comments towards others, but the issues continued and worsened. In the stadiums, non-members witnessed its representatives yelling swears and insults at Mexican spectators. With a new league assembling, more groups formed and followed the precedent set by Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws by establishing a code of conduct, a mission statement, logo, and chants, but the same problems that faced their predecessors soon cropped up within the contemporaries.[7] 

Major League Soccer

When the inaugural Major League Soccer (MLS) season started in 1996 with ten teams, these seasoned and inexperienced followers devoted themselves to the team of their choice. Later, the Independent Supporters Council (ISC), formed in order to “promote supporters culture and advocate for [their] fair treatment.” It defined a supporter as: “He or she [who] actively participates in creating the game-day atmosphere by singing, chanting, and/or creating visual displays called tifo.”[8] They eventually created appropriately named supporters groups, such as the Galaxians (LA Galaxy), the Screaming Eagles (D.C. United), and the Empire Supporters Club (New York Red Bulls). The first groups assembled in 1995 as the clubs signed players and designed jerseys and logos.[9] These fans, and the numerous other supporters’ clubs that formed, attended every home match and frequently traveled long distances to the away games. Some groups, like the Sons of Ben who support the Philadelphia Union, formed with the goal of bringing a team to their region. Within their main stadium, they designated a specific section for them to utilize. Typically, they all wore similar clothing—at least the same color—and scarves with the name of their organization or team, in order to stick out from the rest of the crowd. They always attempted to make the most noise with chants and musical instruments, primarily drums. During the 2007 MLS Cup between the Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution at RFK Stadium, I witnessed Dynamo fans jumping up and down on the bleachers so much so that the stands bounced. Even though these organizations competed against each other, every year they join together in solidarity to protect their abilities to support their teams.


(MLS Cup 2007: DC United Fans and Supporters’ Groups, Image via Patrick Salkeld, United Soccer History Archives)

Starting in 1998, these groups held an annual MLS Supporters’ Summit.[10] Officers of these groups discussed problems that appeared throughout the season within them or bigger issues between them and the club’s front offices. At least one executive attended each year—usually Don Garber, the Commissioner of Major League Soccer. These gatherings allowed for open communication amongst the national representatives, and they frequently found solutions to many of their concerns. In the beginning, some of the league’s apprehensions and uneasiness regarding violence appeared so infrequently that they wondered if they needed to worry about it.

Hooliganism, referred to in the past as the British disease gained notoriety in the 1960s in England as the media publicized it more and spread throughout Europe over the next three decades. It declined as a result of globalization and tragedies like the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster (no longer considered an act of hooliganism as of April 26, 2016).[11] Inside the stadiums, it presented itself in numerous ways with the most infamous being violent behavior and riots—as depicted in the 2005 film Green Street Hooligans with the Green Street Elite modeled after the Inter City Firm (ICF) based around West Ham United in England. The firms set up the altercations in the streets, which made some think they mostly wanted to melee and not support their teams. Yet in the United States, it mainly consisted of inappropriate language, such as swearing and racial epithets—occasionally fighting occurred. In July 2008, the Columbus Crew played an international friendly at home against the English club West Ham United. West Ham’s ICF invaded the Ohio fans’ section and taunted them. The Crew’s supporters responded by throwing solo cups containing beer and attacked the visitors. A year later, Toronto FC traveled to the stadium and its followers vandalized it. A brawl started between them and the Hudson Street Hooligans after the game. The security at the friendly reportedly failed to respond in a timely or assertive manner, and it caused further confusion. While not primarily wanting to cause mayhem, these American fans appeared (for the most part) more similar to the ultras movement of the 1960s than the hooligans.[12]

In Italy, the hard-core supporters advocated noisy and aggressive support, which later resulted in violence and murder.[13] Unlike their English counterparts, their main focus of supporting their club only caused it, and violence and murder were not their prime objectives. Ultras now exist all across Europe with nuances that differentiate them from each other. Yet, one thing remains the same—football is their life with everything else taking after it. In contrast, in the United States, for the majority of fans soccer “is some extra activity for the weekend.”[14] Since 1996, some teams in MLS have supporters’ clubs—the Galaxians, Angel City Brigade, and the L.A. Riot Squad of the LA Galaxy, and Legion 1908, the Union Ultras, and Black Army 1850 of Chivas USA (now defunct)—that asked others to call them ultras; however, they mainly wished to enjoy the matches and support their teams—not act violently or kill.[15] Directly in response to some of the aforementioned incidents, in 2009 the executives of Major League Soccer recognized the intense attitudes of the supporters’ clubs and wrote a “Fans Code of Conduct” and also included their “Pledge to Fans” in order to protect everyone that attended the games against this type of hyper-zealous atmosphere—or at least control it to the best of their ability.[16] These regulations prohibited: “fighting, thrown objects, political or inciting messages, and disorderly behavior, including foul, sexist, racial, obscene, or abusive langue or gestures.”[17] They refrained from delineating the repercussions of the offenses, but over the years, they dealt out punishments.

In 2011, the league sanctioned members of the Texian Army, El Batallon, Brickwall Firm, and La Bateria of the Houston Dynamo because they violated several of the rules, including detonating smoke bombs, obscene gesture and languages, and throwing objects on to the field, such as flashlights and lit flares in David Beckham’s direction.[18] The decision banned the Dynamo group from using drums and smoke bombs at matches.[19] After the 2014 Cup, MLS restricted the ACB from the same forms of participation for eight games because some of its members tossed streamers in celebration.[20] The creation of the Code of Conduct and the resulting disciplines outraged the clubs and fans around the nation because they “strongly rejected the punishment of the whole for the actions of a few.”[21] Dan Margarit, an immigrant from Romania, told Vice Sports, “There are groups…who try to offer their team a decent level of support, but it’s extremely hard when its being seen as thuggish behavior…by regular fans as well as the league and the club managements.”[22] Whether they find the collective penalties appropriate or not, MLS told the Dynamo supporters, “The actions of just a few individuals can influence the perception of all of our supporters, clubs, and League.”[23]

United Soccer League

Unlike MLS, the United Soccer League (USL), founded in 2010 with its inaugural season the next year, allowed its teams to institute fan codes of conduct. In 2013, after a previously failed MLS expansion attempt from 2002-2004 in Edmond, Oklahoma received its second professional soccer team later named the Oklahoma City Energy FC (or Energy FC for short). Before its inaugural season, a group of fans in the area organized and formed The Grid, the official supporters’ club. After several games, the administration of the team conducted surveys and found that spectators disliked “language in our chants,” but the executive of the group refused to censor. In order to combat inappropriate behavior on game-day, the front office gave the officers the responsibility of policing their members. A year later, the organization continued with the vulgarity, and eventually the investors, Prodigal Sports LLC, arranged a “discussion with Jimmy [Nielson] and Sporting KC’s group The Cauldron” in order to make sure they understood that they needed to tone down their wording. As a result, the new leader resigned, they “banned all words with f*** in them,” and they told the rest of their members that they needed to be aware of the risk if they continued their behavior. Then, the next day, the ownership sent the Grid a letter about new procedures, which outlined punishments for organized profanity.[24]

(Tifo display by The Grid, “The Spirt of this City Will Not Be Defeated” via Patrick Salkeld, United Soccer History Archives)

(Tifo display by The Grid, “The Spirt of this City Will Not Be Defeated” via Patrick Salkeld, United Soccer History Archives)

On July 10, 2015, the Officers posted their concerns on Facebook because they felt slighted after they “bowed to their wishes” and then received that notice, but also to inform the public that they “decided…to attend the next match, and maybe more, in complete silence.”[25] Those who commented on their status responded with mixed opinions on the crisis. Some commenters agreed that the front office handled the situation incorrectly, but the majority disagreed with the Grid because it seemed the group only cared about the fact that visitors disapproved of the language, which caused them to sanitize their passion, rather than “the real goal of a supporters group”—“it’s about our club” and “supporting our team in hopes that one day we can get our own MLS team.”[26] In attempts to help, people from other supporters’ clubs offered their own advice and suggestions—primarily to find other ways to be creative about their chants without “the easy path of cursing.”[27] About a week later, The Grid and Prodigal met to both agreed the Grid would “police the content of their chants…and reduce the amount of organized vulgarity.”[28] After this announcement, it appeared the relationship had been repaired with both recommitted to grow the sport. Discord and conflict between the fan base and an ownership group can potentially lead to worse fates for the team—financial ruin and an eventual folding of the team because of negative publicity.

The hooliganism, vulgar chants, and discrimination reflect poorly on the reputations of the teams, MLS, USL, and U.S. Soccer. On April 19, 2016, MLS introduced stricter security policies at games. Fans responded with mixed reactions. Some welcomed the change and viewed it as a good step towards fan and player safety. Others hated it because of the increased time spent waiting in line to enter the stadium. Supporters’ clubs (or supporters’ groups) members thought it might be in response to rising problems between them and MLS since the league recently enforced stricter policies regarding supporters. The Set Pieces featured an article about one fan’s experience as a Vancouver Whitecaps FC supporter who stopped following the team because of “a shift towards consumerism and supporter alienation” within MLS.[29] Before the season started, fans protested with silent matches because of tension between them and the league. Oddly enough, MLS complains about the supporters detonating smoke bombs, but continues to use images of the fans setting them off in game-day advertisements. This contradiction shows the paradox of how MLS treats supporters’ groups, yet wants to display this show of support for the clubs in advertisements. With a moderately strong relationship in America, the sport cannot afford to risk losing any of the fans or financial resources it gained in the last twenty-three years (1993-2016). Stefan Szymanski with R. Todd Jewel and Rob Simmons studied the effect of the violence on club revenue and discovered that a link between “higher arrest rates [and] lower revenues.”[30] Potential spectators and current attendees might then avoid games, and investors then lose money due to the empty seats. Soccer achieved relative success after the 1994 World Cup, but it remains to be seen if it will ever reach the same standards of popularity as the NFL or MLB in the United States because of these problems with fans along with MLS’s increasing corporate attitude and disregard for supporters’ groups. 

Patrick Salkeld is a M.A. Candidate in History at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research focuses on the soccer’s rise in American football territory from the 1960s to 2005. You may contact him via email at or on Twitter: @patsalkeld.


[1] Gunter A. Pilz and Franciska Wolki-Schumacher, Overview of the Ultra Culture Phenomenon in the Council of Europe Member States in 2009 (Hannover, Germany: Leibniz University of Hannover’s Institute of Sport Science, January 18, 2010), 5.
[2] John Sugden, “USA and the World Cup: American Nativism and the Rejection of the People’s Game,” in Hosts and Champions: Soccer Cultures, National Identities, and the USA World Cup, eds. John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1994), 235-40.
[3] Lawrence M. Friedman, The Horizontal Society (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999), 24.
[4] Devon Jackson, “We Can Play, but Can We Root? Sam’s Army Wants to Train American Spectators to be World-Class Fans,” Sports Illustrated, October 30, 1995,
[5] “About Us,” Sam’s Army,; “Match Guidelines,” Sam’s Army,; Devon Jackson, “We Can Play, but Can We Root? Sam’s Army Wants to Train American Spectators to be World-Class Fans,” Sports Illustrated, October 30, 1995,
[6] Korey Donahoo, Justin Brunken, and Ben Cohoon, “About,” American Outlaws,; Noah Davis, “The Growing Pains of U.S. Soccer’s Dominant Supporter’s Group,” Soccer Gods, March 12, 2015,
[7] Korey Donahoo, Justin Brunken, and Ben Cohoon, “Code of Conduct,” American Outlaws,; Noah Davis, “The Growing Pains of U.S. Soccer’s Dominant Supporter’s Group,” Soccer Gods, March 12, 2015,
[8] Independent Supporters Council, “FAQ,” Independent Supporters Council,
[9] Beau Dure, Long Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, Inc., 2010), 15.
[10] Robert Wagman, “MLS Officials Go Before Supporters Summit,” SoccerTimes, November 10, 1998,
[11] Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 89.
[12] Jeff Harbert, “Hooliganism is Ever Present in the US,” BleacherReport, July 21, 2008,; “Toronto FC Fan Says Columbus Melee Not Hooliganism,” CBC Sports, April 1, 2009,; Kartik Krishnaiyer, “Has Hooliginism ‘Kicked Off’ in MLS?” May 15, 2008,; Szymanski and Zimbalist, National Pastime, 79.
[13] Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 79.
[14] Bo Franklin, “The Rise of Ultras in Major League Soccer,” Vice Sports, August 20, 2015,
[15] Ivan Fernandez, “Don’t Call Them Hooligans: Meet Ultras, L.A.’s Major League Soccer Superfans,” LA Weekly, May 15, 2012,
[16] Seattle Offside Archives, “MLS 101: Hooligans and Fan Bans. (Or: Where Did That Code of Conduct Come From?),” SB Nation: Sounder at Heart, April 8, 2009,; Major League Soccer, “MLS Fans: Fans Code of Conduct,” MLS Soccer,
[17] Major League Soccer, “MLS Fans: Fans Code of Conduct,” MLS Soccer,
[18] Danny Lopez, “MLS Brands Dynamo Fans as Hooligans,” Houston Press, February 28, 2012,; Independent Supporters Council, “Open Letter to Don Garber and Mark Abbott Calling for an Immediate Removal of ACB Sanctions,” March 6, 2015,; Alan Black, “Major League Soccer’s Balancing Act with Supporters Groups,” Huff Post Sports, March 3, 2012,
[19]Danny Lopez, “MLS Brands Dynamo Fans as Hooligans,” Houston Press, February 28, 2012,
[20] Independent Supporters Council, “Open Letter to Don Garber and Mark Abbott Calling for an Immediate Removal of ACB Sanctions,” March 6, 2015,
[21] Independent Supporters Council, “Open Letter to Don Garber and Mark Abbott Calling for an Immediate Removal of ACB Sanctions,” March 6, 2015,
[22] Bo Franklin, “The Rise of Ultras in Major League Soccer,” Vice Sports, August 20, 2015,
[23] Danny Lopez, “MLS Brands Dynamo Fans as Hooligans,” Houston Press, February 28, 2012,
[24] The Grid, post to The Grid – Energy FC Supporters Club’s Facebook Page, July 10, 2015 (9:30 p.m.),
[25] The Grid, post to The Grid – Energy FC Supporters Club’s Facebook Page, July 10, 2015 (9:30 p.m.).
[26] Josh Cope, Mike Gilliland, Joshua Wells, comment on The Grid – Energy FC Supporters Club’s Facebook Page, July 10, 2015 (11:27 p.m.).
[27] Adam Yarnevich, Comment on The Grid – Energy FC Supporters Club’s Facebook Page, July 10, 2015 (10:15 p.m.).
[28] Josh Evans, Vice President of Communications for Prodigal LLC and Joe Pugh, President of The Grid, “Press Release: Energy FC and The Grid Meet to Discuss Continued Growth of Soccer in Oklahoma,” July 16, 2015,
[29] The Set Pieces, “Stand Fanzine: Estranged Relations in Canadian Football,” April 19, 2016,
[30] Stefan Szymanski, Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide (New York: Nation Books, 2015), 97.

2 thoughts on “Supporters’ Clubs of USMNT, MLS, and USL: Vulgarity, Hooliganism, and Discrimination

  1. Patrick,

    First thank you for writing this. More academic prose on the growth of Supporter Culture is always to be welcomed. Other fans are going to point out a few minor errors in the piece but I am not. You did well. I would like to address the issue of hooliganism in US Soccer, being a veteran of the worst days of violence in England and Scotland

    In Seattle Sounders first season in 2009, a total of 629,135 paying spectators attended games in an atmosphere where alcohol is freely available and passio is in no short supply. Not one arrest was made. Zero.

    Where else can that many people participate with such a perfect behaviour rate? Certainly not in politics and not even at the same stadium when the SeaHawks are playing. Violence is so endemic there, the Seattle Police Department had to wear the jerseys of away fans to root out thugs who were picking on visitors. Not at Sounders games though.

    Having attended games also various other cities, I can vouch that there is nothing distinctively saintly about Seattle. The atmosphere is just as safe at every other ground, maybe bar San Jose before they moved to a new stadium. Even in Tijuana, that most American of Mexican clubs, there is a family atmosphere when approaching the stadium.

    I know many Supporters Group leaders, all of whom are committed to keeping it that way. By all means, issues such as crowd behaviour in America’s growing soccer market should be discussed and written about.

    But let’s also share the very good news that we have imported nothing from England and thankfully nothing from the NFL except a few executives.


  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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