Thursday January 22nd, 2015

On Dec. 7, 2014, around 200 soccer fans crowded into a bar to watch the MLS Cup final. On the surface, that's pretty standard. For some in that group, and thousands of other supporters around the USA, convening at a local pub to watch their favorite team is a regular occurrence.

Many of these fans were sporting matching scarves and T-shirts, and some even knew a few chants. One fan held a banner displaying the name of a supporters club. But these fans were not there to support the LA Galaxy or New England Revolution. 

For six years, and counting, these fans have supported a club that doesn't exist.

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Soccer’s chicken-or-the-egg dilemma over whether a team or its supporters comes first isn’t much of a debate at all: History has shown that the former births the latter. This simple fact of a soccer club’s biological process stems from the uncontroversial idea that supporters need something to support.

From giant Juventus’ legendary Ultras to paltry NPSL club Detroit City FC’s fervent Northern Guard, a team’s organized supporters give a club a unique identity, no matter how large or small the club. The traditions of supporters -- the chants, songs and garb -- offer clubs a religious atmosphere. What unites nearly all of these supporters clubs is that their customs are inherited from teams and their histories.

But in MLS, which accepts and encourages expansion franchises, the standard timeline for the formation of a supporters club often isn’t observed. New York City FC’s Third Rail and the LAFC Originals formed long before either team could claim a single player, for instance.

While Third Rail members and LAFC Originals could at least pledge allegiance to an existing team, Miami is uniquely home to supporters without a club. The Southern Legion has more than 500 dues-paying members, meets regularly to watch soccer, gives out branded scarves and has a number of songs in its repertoire. But Southern Legion supporters have no club to support.

Like the Sons of Ben supporters club in Philadelphia, which was founded more than a year before MLS awarded the Philadelphia Union to the city, the Southern Legion was born without a corresponding team. Officially created in 2008 by four rabid Miami soccer fans, the Southern Legion has always had one mission: Bring MLS back to Miami. In January 2002, citing financial reasons, the league announced that it was folding two Florida-based franchises, the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny.

“We hope to return to the State of Florida when the league expands in future years,” commissioner Don Garber said at the time.

In 2015, Orlando City SC will make its debut in MLS, bringing the league back to Florida after a 13-year hiatus. But Miami, where soccer is immensely popular in part due to a large international and Hispanic population, remains without a team. The Southern Legion can trace its ancestry to supporters of the Miami Fusion, who actually played their home matches nearly 30 miles north of downtown Miami in Fort Lauderdale.

Last February, there appeared to be a breakthrough: At the Perez Art Museum in Miami, David Beckham stood on stage with Don Garber and announced his intention to bring an expansion MLS franchise to the city. But even before the announcement, Garber had repeatedly said that Miami would not be granted a team until it solidified a stadium plan. He reiterated that point at the announcement. A year later, Garber’s message still holds: No stadium, no team.

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Waiting is nothing new for the Southern Legion. The core founders – Julio Caballero, Ed Serrano, Brian Corey and Pieter Brown – initially decided to support minor-league Miami FC with the hope that the club would be promoted to MLS.

Instead, the club affirmed its commitment to the North American Soccer League and rebranded as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2011. The Legion moved on.

The group then placed its hopes on a 2008 bid from FC Barcelona and businessman Marcelo Claure, the current CEO of Sprint, to bring MLS back to Miami. But in 2009, Barcelona decided not to pursue its expansion bid.

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Beckham’s foray into Miami, in partnership with Claure, has been mired by a back-and-forth between Miami Beckham United, MLS and Miami government.

In December 2013, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted unanimously to allow the mayor to work with Beckham to find land for a stadium, but county and city commissions have rejected two stadium site proposals.

This week, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said MLS’ future in the city is up to Beckham, whose group is currently examining around six largely privately owned sites, according to the Miami Herald.

“MLS is coming into Miami at some point,” Corey says. “It’s just I don’t want to be an old man when that happens.”

Almost a year ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber, left, joined David Beckham, center and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to announce an expansion franchise, contingent on a stadium in Miami.
Almost a year ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber, left, joined David Beckham, center and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to announce an expansion franchise, contingent on a stadium in Miami.
Lynne Sladky/AP

Without a team to support on the field, the Southern Legion doesn’t have any tradition to draw from. A vivid shade of teal was chosen in homage to Miami-Dade County’s colors. The group’s songs are few, but they include tributes to David Beckham (“There’s only one David Beckham!”) and chants from Miami FC. The name “Southern Legion,” chosen by its core members, acknowledges that the group is the southernmost supporters club in the continental United States.

“And we wanted to pick a name that was also cool in Spanish too, so we have Legion del Sur,” Corey explains.

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In absence of watching their team’s matches, Southern Legion members engage in grassroots politics. They rally at City Hall, urging local officials to help bring MLS to the city by clearing a path for a stadium site. They badger politicians by phone, email and social media. Core members say they are in regular communication with Miami Beckham United and various public officials, and that they have helped facilitate communication between all sides.

When the Southern Legion pauses its political activism to watch soccer, teal-clad fans typically gather at Fado Irish Pub in Miami’s posh Brickell neighborhood to view big events, much like their MLS Cup watch party.

Several in the Southern Legion’s nucleus have already held discussions with core Orlando City supporters, and several Legion members are planning to watch the Lions’ MLS debut at home against New York City FC on March 8 at the Citrus Bowl.

“We’ll pull for New York,” Caballero, the Southern Legion president, says. “Because we hate Orlando.”

Yes, the derby is already in the works. The Southern Legion already boasts multiple chants directed at Orlando City, including one called “Mickey Mouse FC.” But Corey says not to expect Florida Turnpike rest stops to be overrun by hooligans anytime soon.

“It’s obviously not a rivalry like they had in England in the 80’s or anything. We’re interested in developing the rivalry to develop Florida soccer, but we’re not going to be hostile to each other in any sort of violent way or anything like that,” he says with a laugh. “It’s our job as leaders of the fan clubs to sort of quash that idea right away, because some people live a little too much in the fantasy of soccer fans.”

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The Southern Legion has a large social media following, with more than 15,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter. Max Ramos-Paez, who manages the accounts, says it can be frustrating at times to try to keep up morale among followers. Even he finds himself losing hope at times. Every time he drives around the city, he wonders where they’ll put a stadium, particularly because overdeveloped downtown Miami is the preferred location.

The Southern Legion’s core may be uncertain about the stadium situation, but members are highly confident that a Major League Soccer club in Miami would be a huge hit. Despite the disappointment that has characterized the MLS Miami movement since 2002, they strongly feel their club would be highly successful.

“I don’t know if I would have been as adamant about supporting all these years if I didn’t think that a soccer team in Miami was kind of more than just a soccer team,” Corey says. “It could really support the kind of branding we have in Miami as a fun, exciting international city and something that could maybe give Miami an identity because we’re a city of displaced people from other countries.”

But for everything Miami’s MLS team could be, there’s no denying what it is not: A tangible club. 

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