EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On Saturday I drove to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to see something in person that I had never seen before. It wasn't just Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, whose rabid supporters helped fill Giants Stadium to its brim; it was a smaller group of fans that owned area J-13 of the parking lot.
I finally got to meet The American Outlaws -- the fan group that supports the U.S. national team. I'd had heard of The American Outlaws, seen their website and their work at various matches over the past few years, but this was the first time up close and personal. According to the Outlaws' founders, they have approximately 4,000 members and 46 chapters around the country.
I did have some naive and preconceived thoughts about the Outlaws previously. When first perusing their website a few years ago, I saw the intimidating logos and bandana-mask wearing supporters pictured all over. My quick reaction was that this could be a poseur-ish version of a British club firm (supporters' clubs with a Hooligan slant) on a national level here in the USA. I thought that maybe a few guys with too much beer and free time had watched "Green Street Hooligans," and in a haze of Natty Light and Dominos Pizza, built a website. That was my initial notion when I saw the site years ago. I was obviously wrong.
If you watch any national team match in person or on television, you cannot help but notice the Outlaws' boisterous fan section decked out in jerseys, bandannas, flags and numerous other outlandish outfits. The Outlaws stand from whistle to whistle, chant songs and try like heck to help boost the U.S. to a win, or at least put out a good showing.
Arriving at 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. match, the Outlaws' tailgate party was brewing nicely, but not yet to a full roar. The upper management of the Outlaws' was very welcoming, but also feverishly trying to get the keg tapped, hot dogs cooking and to direct buses full of supporters that were coming in from every direction. Justin Brunken, Korey Donahoo, Brian Hexsel, Zach Stivrins and Shane Jochum comprise Outlaw upper management and are all based in Nebraska, where this whole thing started. I tried to get exact titles and background, but someone spilled a Pironi on my notebook.
"We are young, the new generation of soccer fans," Brunken told me as he waved in the D.C. chapter bus. "People see the logo and name and think 'crazy,' but we are just more passionate than the average fan."
The management team laughed when I told them my misguided "Green Street" theory; they'd heard that one before. What I found most interesting about the Outlaws' founders is that they all have fulltime jobs back home in Nebraska -- and still manages to find time to travel to the various match sites.
"We are doing this to have fun, but it's more to grow soccer as a sport here," Brunken added. "We go to the small USA matches or the big ones like today. But we bring our people with us and when we get in the stadium, we create an atmosphere."
The Outlaws travel well. Stivrins told me that they went all the way to South Africa for the World Cup and that a match like Argentina would bring out about 800 national members. He was right, soon the tailgate swelled to almost 1000 Outlaws. Many had on bandana-masks and two guys even had on skin-tight USA flag bodysuits. Their American spirit was literally spilling out of the suits.
I was curious if The American Outlaws had encountered any violent incidents at the international matches. They, in unison, told me that matches against Mexico have the most strained fan relations, though nothing the ever threatens to send someone to the emergency room over. I even noticed quite a few Argentine fans mixed in with the Outlaws, sipping and socializing. I felt like we were at a SEC football game. Actually, SEC football tailgates may have more chance for a brawl.
"It's an entire weekend," said Stivrins. "We find an Outlaw-friendly bar in whichever town the match is ... we meet the night before and day of. We tailgate all day and then march into the game together. Then the show starts."
If you've watched European soccer, then what the Outlaws do during the match will seem familiar; chants, heckling and just a constant barrage of noise with some comedy mixed in.
It's an effort that U.S. national team stars such as Landon Donovan appreciate, and from all fan support groups, not just the American Outlaws.
"Our supporter groups in this country are more important to us than other national teams because we often play in stadiums where the opposing team's fans out number the U.S. fans," said Donovan. "They always make us feel at home and I believe that is imperative to our success."
What was noticeable from a visual standpoint is that of the 79,000-strong crowd in Giants Stadium, the American Outlaw group of maybe 1,000 set the tone for the entire joint. Every time Messi touched the ball, the masses stood and cheered. The same goes for when the U.S. team went on a rush. But during the more mundane moments of the match, this postage-stamp of manic soccer love kept the room rocking. From what they say, they won't stop doing just this until you join in.