About half an hour before kickoff of the MLS Cup final, New York Red Bulls fans marched en masse into the Home Depot Center, their scarves held high, their voices turned up to 11. They banged their drums and sang their songs, including some anachronistic ones -- "We are the Metros, the mighty, mighty Metros" -- and they didn't stop the entire afternoon, even when they knew the game was lost.
Many of us, particularly those of us from New York, were in awe. Where the hell did this raucous devotion come from? The MetroStars had some decent backing when they existed, but the Red Bulls have long had a reputation for being poorly supported. Some games, it looks like there are only about 17 people at Giants Stadium.
But on Sunday, the New Yorkers brought the crowd and the noise. They sang in English. They sang in Spanish ("Soy del Metro!"). They made songs up on the spot: "There's only one Shep Messing" -- a serenade of the former New York Cosmos goalkeeper -- when they crossed paths in the parking lot. They were so good, they even impressed a Brit I met.
Nearby, in the northeast corner of the stadium, a sea of yellow played counterpoint. The Columbus Crew fans were more organized than the Red Bullers, more controlled and in unison. They had actual cheerleaders shaking their pompoms and dancing like a chorus line at the top of the fans' section. The rowdies from the Hudson Street Hooligans and Crew Union were nearer the field, with colorful, lively banners. They banged thundersticks, waved a massive black-and-gold checked flag, and chanted "We love ya" and "Columbus 'til I die" again and again.
The Columbus supporters have grown exponentially this year. I'm not sure if anyone knows why this is the case -- a better team, a designated section at Crew Stadium, a concerted effort from the supporters' groups to expand -- but whatever it is, denizens of the Nordecke have become every bit as thrilling as the fans in Toronto, Chicago or D.C.
So here's to the fans. Here's to the Columbus fans of the Nordecke, who nearly let a racist incident taint everything they achieved this year, but worked with the club to fix things and focus on the positive.
Here's to the Empire Supporters Club, who suffered for so many years in New York and then didn't blink when presented with a 3,000-mile trip to the final.
Here's to Mike and his buddies, who I ran into at the legendary soccer bar Nevada Smith's in New York City a month ago. They were decked out in yellow Crew gear and vowed to go to Cup if the Crew made it. He found me in the parking lot in L.A. to prove that he wasn't lying.
Here's to Johnny Toro, who painted his bald head red and wore horns on it and a ring in his nose, and yet was somehow more normal than many others.
Here's to the chant, "Frankie needs a beer. Frankie needs a beer," a malty cheer with which the Columbus fans serenaded their hero, Frankie Hejduk. The Crew captain, while serving a suspension earlier this season, famously chugged beers with the supporters at a pregame tailgate party. Now, that's how to build a fanbase.
Here's to Giovanni, a longtime New York fan, who forewent sleep after the Hatton-Malignaggi fight in Vegas and drove to L.A. just so he could be there when New York was in the final.
Here's to the Union Ultras, fans of Chivas USA, who threw their support behind Columbus. Why? I have no idea. But they cheered as vociferously as anyone.
Here's to the couple with the yellow hardhat and the Crew scarves who laughed even while they were dealing with a tow truck because their rental car wouldn't start after the game. Nothing could stop them from enjoying the moment.
These are more than fans; they are supporters. What's the difference, you ask?
Well, for one, fans don't travel across the country to watch their team; supporters do. Fans also don't know the words to all the songs; supporters do. Fans don't feel it, really feel it, in their gut, in their bones, in their blood, when their team wins or loses; supporters do.
So although the match was indeed memorable, it is the fans from the MLS Cup final that I will carry with me. Because the fans, as always, make the moment last.