The growing pains of U.S. soccer’s dominant supporter’s group

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Tanya Keith should have been happy. She was in a place she dreamt about, a bar full of people dressed in the red, white, and blue of the United States soccer team. The following day, the American men’s team would take on South Korea at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., and she had gone to Casey’s bar for a pre-match party hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Outlaws.

For more than two decades, the U.S. national team had been a central part of Keith’s life. She attended her first game in 1991 and got hooked after watching a 4–3 loss against Germany in 1993. “I went into the game a Germany fan and came out a U.S. fan,” she said over the phone, still inspired by the team’s grit and determination more than 20 years later. She and her husband traveled the world to go to matches. She estimates that their 12-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son have been to a combined 45 games.

In February 2008, she sent an email to the founders of the American Outlaws (AO), then only a months-old supporters group, and inquired about launching a chapter in Des Moines, Iowa, where she lived. It took a bit of back and forth, but the chapter was eventually formed and Keith became chapter president.

“People that loved U.S. Soccer found American Outlaws,” she said, “and American Outlaws gave us the ability to contact and connect with each other. I really loved it.”

Slowly, however, the tenor began to change. In 2014, she flew by herself to California to attend the game against South Korea. At Dillon’s, she met up with a group of women she knew from previous events. Then the party “started to get out of hand and guys were getting touchy-feely,” she said. At one point, Keith complimented a young man on the U.S. crest he had shaved in his head. “He said he’d get me a beer. He was super drunk. He was handing me a beer and feeling me up,” she said. “A beer is not permission to get to second base with me.”

The day after the party, Keith mentioned the experience on a Facebook group she started for female AO members. (She originally called it “AO Riot Girls” but changed the name to “Riot Girls,” she said, after AO’s national leadership told her they didn’t want their name on a female-only group.) After hearing about similar experiences at the party, she sent a letter to AO headquarters explaining what had happened and requesting that they come out strongly against that kind of behavior. Instead, the letter was passed around AO circles, and Keith began to receive hate mail. Members were appalled that she would say anything bad about the group, arguing that she should have gone to the police rather than disparage the Outlaws.

In an email to me, Korey Donahoo, one of the group’s founders, agreed, writing that “matters as serious as harassment should be reported to the police or event security.”

Keith felt differently. “I’m not going to call the cops because a guy touched my boobs on the way to handing me a beer,” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She said was merely looking for the group to make a strong statement against that type of behavior at its events. “AO is starting to represent all U.S. soccer fans, and that kind of culture is not what we want represented.”

“He was handing me a beer and feeling me up … A beer is not permission to get to second base with me.”

- Former American Outlaw Tanya Keith

In less than a decade, the Outlaws have become become the biggest and most influential force in U.S. national team fan culture, and it’s experiencing some growing pains. What began as a small idea started by three affable friends in Nebraska has become a movement with more than 34,000 people paying $25 per year to join the club. Its presence has transformed the atmosphere at U.S. matches ranging from World Cup qualifiers against Mexico to unimportant friendlies, amping up the noise coming from the stands and creating an advantage for the United States.

Players appreciate the support. “That’s a real atmosphere,” Landon Donovan said after the U.S. defeated Mexico 2–0 to earn a spot at the 2014 World Cup. “That’s what we face when we go away and it’s nice that other teams have to face it when they come here. We enjoy playing in front of a crowd like that and they certainly boosted us tonight.”

But spend enough time talking to fans of the United States national team and you begin to hear concerns about ugly displays of nationalism, racism, sexism, and other negative aspects that are cropping up at AO events. You hear Keith’s story, and others like it, again and again.

“It’s become its own monster,” U.S. goalie Tim Howard said of the fan support after the match in Columbus. He meant it as a compliment, a tribute to the increased backing the American team gets when it plays both at home and abroad, a growth that can be attributed directly to the success of the American Outlaws. But there’s also another monster lurking in the shadows—the sense that the heavy-drinking frat boy vibe is winning the battle for the soul of the Outlaws.

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The American Outlaws is not the first U.S. supporters group of the modern era. That would be Sam’s Army, founded by Mark Spacone and John Wright in 1994. They began by organizing tailgates for important home World Cup qualifiers and traveled as a group to the 1998, 2002, and 2006 World Cups. (In 2006, I marched with Sam’s Army through the streets of Nuremberg on the way to the U.S.-Ghana game, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” It was fun but, looking back, the scene had some of the negative elements this article will cover.)

In 2006, Donahoo, Justin Brunken, and Ben Cohoon of Lincoln, Nebraska, traveled to Germany for the World Cup. The trio, all in their mid-20s, were members of Sam’s Army and hoped to meet up with other SA supporters for a pre-game party in Gelsenkirchen before the Americans played the Czech Republic in their opening match. The morning of the game they went to SA’s website and saw a note that read “Check back later for details.” The lack of organization was disappointing. After returning from Germany, Donahoo, Brunken, and Cohoon went to Los Angeles for a friendly in January 2007, arriving very early at the Home Depot Center parking lot. Donahoo told me they were surprised that no large tailgate had been set up to welcome out-of-towners.

After the disappointing experiences, they emailed Sam’s Army leadership with an offer to help organize meet ups and rallies. When they didn’t hear back, they decided to do start their own group. Their organization would focus on three things: a “chapter” structure that required at least 25 dues-paying members and a base bar to host viewing parties; a night before and pre-game tailgate on location at every home U.S. match; and a bit more of a badass attitude than Sam’s Army brought to games, evidenced by the trademark U.S. bandanas they wear over their faces.

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For more than a year, Lincoln was the only chapter. Then, in February 2009, a group in Kansas City became chapter two. The momentum built quickly, and soon there were chapters in far flung cities like Rochester (chapter no. 41), San Jose (76), and Wichita (100). AO was the leading U.S. supporters group.

“I think the game against Mexico in 2009 stands out for me as when we arrived,” Donahoo told me over the phone while on break from his day job working as a highway design engineer for the state of Nebraska. “We were there in more numbers than Sam’s Army was.” These days, Sam’s Army is all but gone. Its website says the groups has nearly 25,000 members, but it hasn’t been updated since July 2014, and its presence inside stadiums is often nonexistent. The founders did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment.

The Outlaws currently boast more than 165 chapters across the country — everywhere from Adams, Massachusetts to Wilmington, North Carolina — and one in London. True to Donahoo’s word, they have hosted pre-match parties the night before every game and tailgates on game days. They are a fixture on television broadcasts. Before the World Cup, Maxim ran a glowing portrait, and The New York Times featured AO in a quizzical look at American fans. The group was part of a story on New York Magazine’s site that claimed “America has finally fallen for soccer,” and though it wasn’t mentioned by name, the Outlaws represent the “the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet” who were mocked in a Wall Street Journal essay making fun of American supporters. ESPN dedicated an entire ad to the group and its “I Believe” chant. They even earned the right to lead the crowd in singing an admittedly off-key and off-tempo version of the Star Spangled Banner during the 2014 World Cup Send-Off Series. They are American soccer supporter’s culture, for better or—increasingly—for worse.

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By 11:30 a.m. on the hot, muggy morning of June 1, 2014, the American Outlaws had taken over Catas in Newark, N.J. Inside the modern Spanish restaurant and lounge, well over one hundred red, white, and blue-clad people, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, battled their way to the bar for pitchers of Yuengling and Blue Moon. A few women, outnumbered at least five and probably closer to 10 to one, opted for pitchers of “mimosas,” a mix of Carlo Rossi wine wine, sparkling water, and orange juice. More than a hundred more people milled about on the driveway that doubled as a patio outside the bar. They wore shirts featuring patriotic slogans like “Back to back World War champs.” Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” broke out every few minutes as ping pong balls flew into red solo cups and assorted revelers sipped beer straight from pitchers, the overwhelmed bar having run out of plastic cups.

Later that afternoon, the U.S. national team would be playing Turkey in the second of three “Send-off Series” matches before heading to Brazil for the World Cup. The tournament would break viewership records in the U.S. as soccer continued to find mainstream traction. The American Outlaws can legitimately claim to be a major factor in that growth. The rabid enthusiasm of its members, usually packed together into a section or two behind the goal, plays well on television. The group’s story lends itself to the the type of soft-focus features that bolster the narrative of upward momentum that soccer pundits like to push. (Willie Geist made an appearance at Catas to film a segment for the Today show.) And now that the USSF works with the group to organize parties, stadium chants, and other aspects of supporter culture, the Outlaws have become a big part of this country’s soccer establishment.

“That’s what we face when we go away and it’s nice that other teams have to face it when they come here.”

- Landon Donovan

AO had never been bigger than it was at the 2014 World Cup. In the lead-up to the World Cup, they enjoyed plenty of press but their visibility exploded during the tournament itself. Almost as soon the Americans kicked off in Brazil, Donahoo told me that his mom’s house, where new memberships are processed, was overrun with scarves waiting to be sent out.

The Outlaws offered an all-inclusive travel package to the World Cup. The first charter jet sold out on the day it went on sale in 2012. AO leadership booked another and then another when those sold out, too. In total, 530 people signed on for the full tour – airfare, hotels, buses to the matches, and tickets – with another 60 making their own way to Brazil and traveling with them in-country. The Outlaws took to Brazil in force, even though one plane had mechanical issues and 15 members had to take an alternate route.

The night before the Americans were to play Ghana in Natal, AO had a huge presence at the fan rally hosted by U.S. Soccer. Three thousand packed the venue, drinking, partying, and chanting into the night—a frat party in red, white, and blue. The next day, “all beer in a ten-block radius was bought out by four hours before game time,” a fan in the midst of it all wrote on his blog.

There were similar scenes back in the U.S. At a watch party under the Brooklyn Bridge for the round of 16 match against Belgium, the ubiquitous “I Believe” chant rebounded around the space every five minutes, each new wave started by one of half a dozen late teenage or early 20-something males in different parts of the crowd. Many of their age group peers didn’t have the same inclination to launch the chant but were only too happy to join in once one had begun. Americans who, any other day, have no personal beef with the country booed during Belgium’s national anthem and yelled “Belgium sucks,” “Fuck you, Belgium,” and “Asshole! Asshole!” at the screen.

General perceptions are one thing, individual experiences are another. You don’t have to look very hard to find someone with a story about a bad interaction regarding an AO member. Most of the people I contacted did not want to speak on the record, afraid of potentially opening themselves up to more abuse and bullying.

Magdalena Barajas tells a story that echoes several anecdotes I heard off the record. She came to AO in 2010, after a teammate in her recreational soccer league recommended she watch the U.S.-England game with the Tucson, Ariz., chapter. She started going to more events with the group and it became a significant part of her social life. “Over the years, I grew very close to the AO Tucson people,” she said. “We’d almost, like, spend holidays together.”

After she left Arizona for New York, however, she said she “started picking up the other side of the AO culture.” Barajas went to watch a few games at her new chapter’s home bar, happy to be with people she thought were like-minded fans. But the experience was different than it had been in Arizona. While the chapters leaders were welcoming, “These were ‘Fuck Mexico’ chants and there were beers thrown,” she said. “I stopped going to the AO New York events. Most of the members were really nice but there were enough to taint the experience.” Barajas later told me that she experienced negative sentiments as she traveled for games and interacted with many different chapters.

“Racism, discrimination, sexism, and disrespect towards fellow fans or fans of other teams have no place in AO. How you conduct yourself in and outside the stadium, at your chapter bars, and online, in your words and actions reflect on all of us.”

- American Outlaws Code of Conduct

At the crucial World Cup qualifier in Columbus between the U.S.-Mexico back in September, the tension in the stands mirrored that on the field. Crew Stadium, where the Americans had defeated El Tri by a score of two to zero during qualifying for the 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cup—spawning the famous dos a cero chant—gives the U.S. several natural advantages. First, in the winter months, it’s cold. And the middle of Ohio is relatively inconvenient for the the great number of pro-Mexico fans who come out to cheer their team in many other American cities. The crowd last fall was decidedly pro-American, and fans on message boards, including AO’s, and other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, discouraged others from selling tickets to Mexico supporters.

But a few fans of the visiting side were able to get tickets in the AO section of the stadium. Barajas, who attended the game and sat with some of her friends, was horrified by the abuse she saw, especially the treatment of two Mexican men who had children with them, including a young girl who was three or four years old. “Some AO members started yelling, telling them to get out of our section. There were people who were abusing these two men,” she said. “These guys started shouting, ‘Get the fuck out of our section! Fuck Mexico! Beaners! Spics!’” Eventually, an usher came and moved the men and their children. “I have no problem hating the Mexico team,” Barajas continues. “Hate them all you want, but you don’t need to insult the fans.”

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In 2012, Sergio Tristan founded Pancho Villa’s Army (PVA), a group for U.S.-based supporters of the Mexican national team. Being abused by American fans at matches against the U.S. and on social media is common. “You have a little bit more extreme ones, saying ‘we should deport you guys,’ and telling me all kinds of stuff,” he told me in January, 2013. “I expected some people to tell us that we were in the U.S. and we should love this country. I did not expect people to tell us to go back to Mexico and that ‘we don’t want you here.’”

(That October, Pancho Villa’s Army sued AO, alleging that AO had forced Ten Dot, the agency providing World Cup packages, to revoke the trip it put together for PVA. The case was eventually dismissed.)

Not all of the abuse aimed at Pancho Villa’s Army has come from AO members, but as the dominant supporters group, AO has more influence than any other organization when it comes to setting the tone of discourse inside the stadium and on the web. When I asked Donahoo about combating racism, he pointed to AO’s code of conduct, which the group calls “Act Above.” It reads in part: “Racism, discrimination, sexism, and disrespect towards fellow fans or fans of other teams have no place in AO. How you conduct yourself in and outside the stadium, at your chapter bars, and online, in your words and actions reflect on all of us.”

“I think anytime you get around a very patriotic crowd, it’s going to end up that way … For 90 minutes, you can be an unabashed American fan. That patriotism doesn’t need to turn into jingoism.”

- AO Director of Communications Dan Wiersema

Donahoo said they make sure every member is constantly reminded about the code. “We send membership-wide emails all the time,” he told me. “Every game, every ticket-buyer signs it. No racism is a huge part of that. When a chapter becomes a chapter, we talk to the leaders.”

The effort to eliminate racism is genuine, but as AO acknowledges in its code, “the actions of a select few (even as they do not represent the entire group) make us all look bad.” Donahoo said there have been a few cases of someone’s membership being suspended or revoked due to breaking the code. He points to the AO Watch that allows individuals to report members who are not acting in accordance of the standards set by the national leadership. The group’s leadership admits that the pro-U.S.A. appeal of AO is an on-ramp to a slippery slope.

“I think anytime you get around a very patriotic crowd, it’s going to end up that way,” said Dan Wiersema, who has functioned as AO’s director of communications since the spring of 2014. “I don’t say that as a damning indictment of AO and I don’t say that as a point of pride. It just sort of comes with the territory of being super patriotic, for better or for worse. There’s an element of beer and fanaticism that fuels that a little bit, but ultimately it’s just fun. For 90 minutes, you can be an unabashed American fan. That patriotism doesn’t need to turn into jingoism. There’s a very fine line there and people just need to be careful.”

There’s also the issue of inclusion. “I don’t think we’re in a position as soccer fans to exclude anyone,” Wiersema said. Still, the organization is demographically skewed heavily twenty-something males. AO doesn’t have specific demographic data, but co-founder Justin Brucken said the membership on Facebook is 80-20 male to female and the majority of its members are between 18 and 34 years old. He said the group is becoming more diverse as more people join. That may be true, but anecdotal evidence suggests that change happens slowly. At Catas in Newark, the line at the men’s room ran a dozen deep. It was nonexistent for the women.

Tanya Keith watched the rise of the AO bros and remained a member of the group even after her negative experience in Los Angeles. She kept hoping that the good would outweigh the bad. In 2014, Keith wrote and published a memoir about her soccer travels. She posted about the book on an internal promotional board for AO members and “within four minutes” someone was making a rape joke. “I don’t think women need to be a special class of people but I think people should be able to promote a book without getting rape jokes,” she said. “That was the end of it for me. It had turned to something that I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Keith continued to attend U.S. games, and plans to do so in the future, but not as part of the largest American soccer supporters group. “AO did so many great things. I wish they were better stewards of the brand they created,” she said. “I hate using the term frat party because it wasn’t a frat party, but it has become a frat party. They are basically marginalizing everyone who is not part of the frat party.”

Monty Rodrigues is trying to start an alternative. The 39-year-old has been to about 60 U.S. games, starting with a 2–0 win over England in 1993. He is currently planning to launch his own U.S. national team supporters group. The organizers are based across the country: New York, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and a few other cities. He and his fellow founders never got into the AO spirit, turned off by a number of factors. “It’s the bro-y attitude,” he told me over the phone. “It’s the beer pong. We drink before games. That’s never been a question. But I don’t want to be drunk when the ball starts rolling. I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen them throwing up in the stands, which isn’t a pleasant scene to experience.” Rodrigues said the talks he and his co-founders have had with dozens of fans make it clear to them that there’s a segment of the U.S. fanbase that wants an outlet less focused on beers, bandanas, and boorish behavior.

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Rich Moore is another long-time U.S. Soccer supporter. He remembers being at a Dallas Sidekicks game in 1989 when the announcer came over the loudspeaker to tell the crowd about Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard round the world.” Both teams stopped the game to applaud the American team for qualifying for its first World Cup since 1950.

In 2010, Moore contacted AO national about starting a chapter in San Antonio. He emailed every week, and on the occasions that his notes were answered, he kept getting the wrong information about chapter requirements. After a year, he gave up, passing the leadership duties to another person who experienced more of the same. A third person took over and finally got the chapter officially up and running.

Moore—a vice president of the Crocketteers, an independent supporters group—stayed involved in the San Antonio soccer scene and knew many of the local AO leaders. He joined the San Antonio chapter of AO but let his membership lapse after the first year. In 2013, the group wanted to change its official watch bar to Lion and Rose after experiencing problems with its original choice, the Freetail Brewing, which wouldn’t reserve seats during a few key games. No longer a member, he joined conference calls on the subject anyway because AO’s national leaders were familiar with him and, in his words, “had no idea” he was no longer a dues-paying member several years later. The national leadership, he says, was very reluctant to allow the chapter to change bars, a decision that would negatively impact Freetail’s bottom line.

The San Antonio chapter decided to change bars anyway, spreading the news through word of mouth, but it wasn’t until after the World Cup that AO’s official page showed that the Lion and the Rose had replaced Freetail Brewing. Moore and the AO San Antonio leadership thought the delay was strange. Though AO leadership explained to me that they “encourage consistency and discourage chapters from changing bars if possible, because we would like local members to know where to go every time a U.S. Soccer game is on,” the San Antonio chapter learned of another possible reason: Wiersema is good friends with Freetail’s owner.

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Last April, the U.S. played a friendly against Mexico in Phoenix, Ariz. AO’s Phoenix chapter, led by Tony Hernandez, planned to host the night before and pre-game festivities. Earlier in the year, their usual host bar had closed down, so they had to choose a new one. After some debate, they picked the Titled Kilt, which had a central location in downtown Phoenix and whose management offered some attractive specials. It was also a “breastaurant”—think Hooters (promotion picture, below)—but that wasn’t a concern to most members, and the first watch party AO Phoenix hosted there was a success. “We had a ton of people there—kids, families,” Hernandez said.

VanessaPVS_5090The trouble started a few weeks before the U.S.-Mexico game, when the Phoenix chapter announced that the pre-match party would take place at the Tilted Kilt. A number of people, including Barajas, complained about the location. Hernandez asked the national leadership for guidance, and he was instructed to keep the party at the Tilted Kilt. After another call a few days later, however, the Outlaws main website announced that the party had been moved to McFaddens, a bar near the University of Phoenix Stadium where the game would be played. The Phoenix group didn’t like being overruled. “We had a conference call and AO promised us that if there was any blowback, they would back us up,” Hernandez said. “There was blowback, and they decided, ‘No, we have to change the venue.’ That’s what really pissed us off. They told us they would back us up, the blowback came, and they said, ‘We’re moving it.’”

The San Antonio chapter has experienced similar frustrations as it plans for the U.S.-Mexico game in April 2015. “At every stage, at every turn, every suggestion we made for where to have the Tuesday night party, where to have the tailgate, and where to have the march to the stadium—they are pushing back on us,” said Moore, who was on a planning conference call. “They want to go somewhere else Tuesday night. They really don’t want to use the place we have selected for the tailgate and the march. I definitely see where the local supporters groups have had problems with national. They simply do not listen to feet on the ground. It’s frustrating when somebody from Nebraska is trying to tell us what the best bar is for our tailgate.”

“If we’re not somebody’s cup of tea, that’s fine. But we are a lot of people’s cup of tea.”

- American Outlaws co-founder Korey Donahoo

For Barajas, the decision to choose the Tilted Kilt, even though it was ultimately changed, was the last straw. A few days later, she removed the auto-renew feature on her membership, effectively dropping out of the group.

She said she wasn’t angry, but she had concerns about the future of the organization. “It ended well, I guess, in that I don’t hate AO and I hope things go well for them, but I definitely feel that if things don’t start to change, it’s going to limit the way it can grow,” she said. “The bro culture is not something you want to develop. And it’s potentially dangerous.”

Hernandez agrees that the Outlaws “have a very ‘frat boy’ image” and that the group “should try to shake it off.” But it might be too late to control the rowdiness inherent to AO. That is, after all, part of what attracts the masses.

AO’s growth from a single chapter in Lincoln, Neb., is a remarkable story, and an extremely hopeful one for those who want soccer to become more popular in this country. But stories from Keith, Moore, Hernandez, Barajas, and Rodrigues raise concerns about the culture it is nurturing among supporters of the team. American soccer isn’t in danger of ending up among the thugs, but go to any U.S. men’s national team game, and you will very much be among the bros. And as long as they don’t offend other people, that’s okay with AO’s leadership. “If we’re not somebody’s cup of tea, that’s fine,” Donahoo said. “But we are a lot of people’s cup of tea.”

The original version of this article reported Odeen Domingo, identified as a vice president of Phoenix’s American Outlaws chapter in 2014, had quit the group as a result of the events surrounding The Tilted Kilt. Domingo remains a member of the chapter. The original version also mistakenly referred to the owner of Freetail’s bar in San Antonio as the best man at American Outlaw’s Director of Communications Dan Wiersema’s wedding. The Los Angeles-area bar referenced in the opening of this story was originally reported as Dillon’s Irish Pub. The pre-party ahead of the Feb. 2014 U.S. men’s national team game happened at Casey’s.