From the Rust Belt to the Appalachian Trail, Eight by Eight”s Grant Czubinski takes a look at the lively world of lower division football in America.
They poured out of Harry’s Bar by the hundreds and filled the street, singing in full voice, waving flags, and holding scarves aloft. As the chanting and drumming got louder, several within the group threw smoke bombs onto the pavement and produced flares. Smoke enveloped the throng of bodies, but the singing continued unabated.
Marching toward the stadium, they yelled, “No one likes us…we don’t care!” Necks craned out of windows and over balconies to salute the group as they neared the stadium entrance. Once inside, the swarm greeted the visiting team outside of their locker room: “Can you hear Cleveland sing? We don’t hear a fucking thing!”
No, this isn’t Portland, Seattle, or any other football hotbed in the United States.
This is Detroit, Michigan, home of Detroit City FC (DCFC) and the Northern Guard Supporters (NGS), who follow their club in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the fourth tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. “I do this because of forty years of pent up soccer love,” NGS member Gene Butcher told Eight by Eight. “We are loud, and we never shut up. Ever!”
The city that was once the undisputed world capital of the automotive industry is now helping to show the world that America is indeed a footballing nation. In just two years, the Motor City club and its supporters group have made a name for themselves within American soccer circles for their unabashed, tireless, and rapid support. “You are actually a part of something special,” said Butcher.“We do not care….[that] we are in the fourth tier. We love the club.”
As the mainstream media debates whether football has finally made it in America, NGS, along with groups around the country, are illustrating that American support for football is more diffuse than many thought.
As if continuing their childhood routine of watching Saturday morning cartoons, many fans across the country wake up at the crack of dawn each weekend to find a bar showing their favorite foreign teams. They then eagerly don the colors of their local clubs and head down to the stadium to support domestic clubs from Major League Soccer to local amateur sides.
Just as NGS is raising the bar for fanaticism in the Midwest, the Chattahooligans are helping define football culture in another unlikely place: Chattanooga, Tennessee, deep in the heart of SEC country.
Compared to the NGS, the Chattahooligans support is rated PG. You won’t find any flares or smoke bombs, but you will find the same unwavering support for the game, their club Chattanooga FC, their community, and a twenty foot tall effigy of their casino online goalkeeper in their section.
“We continually set the atmosphere so the fans have fun and the players perform, but Chattanooga is a southern city so we have to be family friendly to be acceptable,” explained Galen Riley, a member of the Chattahooligans.
The club, competing in the NPSL like DCFC, has ranked near the top of the league’s attendance table since their founding in 2009. Chattanooga drew a league record 8,878 fans to their playoff semifinal victory over the Sacramento Gold on July 26th. The Chattahooligans are a huge part of the club’s success at drawing in fans.
Meanwhile, the club has been instrumental in giving football fans a platform to express their support. “Prior to CFC there wasn’t any professional team here, nor is there a major university. Chattanooga was hungry for something to call their own, and CFC filled that need,” explained CFC General Manger Sean McDaniel “Word on what we’re doing is trickling out nationally; this is only fostering growth in other communities. We want to share that knowledge to grow the game sustainably at all levels.”
This is not to say that all supporters find lower division football compelling. Some fans do not even find MLS worth their time, let alone a 4th division NPSL side.
That has largely been what the both the NGS and the Chattahooligans have experienced when dealing with fans who prefer European leagues and their local American Outlaws chapters. For instance, the American Outlaws chapter of Chattanooga rarely attends NPSL league games. “I have only ever seen one or two at CFC matches,” said Riley, “And they weren’t even in the Chattahooligan’s section.”
Regardless of the differences in taste between the fans, it is apparent that the supporter’s culture within the United States isn’t entirely product of the USMNT success at this year’s World Cup. The supporters have been here. It is only the spotlight that is now cast upon them that has changed and become more amplified.
“The group existed before the club even had a roster,” explained NGS supporter Butcher. “Being a part of the Northern Guard and supporting DCFC provides all of us with a group of friends, a sense of family and community that I doubt exists elsewhere.”