Supporters Week: For fans, no "off" in offseason

Tim Hall did not want to hear about soccer. At least for a couple of months.

That’s how the current MLS offseason started for Hall, a member of the Empire Supporters Club, after watching his New York Red Bulls endure a gut-wrenching MLS Cup Playoffs elimination last year at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes.

“That stung quite a bit,” Hall told MLSsoccer.com. “But once the calendar turns to January and the weather becomes a little warmer, the blood starts to get up again and you start to feel it. And the drum beat is starting in your head, both figuratively and literally.”

In actuality the drum beat never stopped since that match last November. If MLS players can afford to take a breather during the winter months, the same can’t be said for fans like Hall.

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Take January’s MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore – an event which felt like a matchday supporters section. Hall called it the highlight of an offseason which included USMNT watch parties, a summit with the RBNY front office and the creation of the ESC’s newest T-shirts and flags.

“It wasn’t a long offseason,” said former Section 8 president Ben Burton following a four-hour meeting with the Chicago Fire front office on Wednesday. “You’d think it would be because [the Fire] didn’t make the playoffs. But things for us never really slowed down.”

Burton’s offseason was even more intense. It consisted of a Section 8 annual general meeting, regular monthly public supporters meetings, a 2010 MLS Cup watch party and two charity events in which Section 8 collected several thousands of dollars and hundreds of pounds of food for a local Chicago depository. They are also currently fundraising for tifo.  

All the work has turned out to be well worth it, especially since Section 8 has sold more season tickets for 2011 than for any previous campaign.

The down time is that much more gratifying if you have an MLS Cup trophy in tow. Matt Baumgartner of the Colorado Rapids’ Bulldog Supporters Club knows what that’s like.

The Anschutz trophy has been on tour in Colorado since the Rapids’ title conquest last November. Baumgartner helped organize a trophy showing in Colorado Springs and attended others, including one at the recent Colorado Avalanche vs. Edmonton Oilers hockey game at the Pepsi Center. Along with 81 other Rapids supporters, soccer fans claimed one of the seating sections and brought their supporter culture to the NHL.

“We brought our flags and banners,” he said. “Besides some stares and glares from people for whom it wasn’t normal, some people came over to join our section. We had all the soccer chants and then switched them up for some of the Avs players so it wasn’t a Rapids fest. It got people’s attention.”

Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson got the attention of one RSL supporter on Christmas Eve. Denzel Eslinger, who also runs the RSLSoapBox.com blog, ran into the Canadian doing some late gift shopping at a local Best Buy.

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“I was there picking up a couple of last minute items and he’s there in line,” Eslinger said. “I asked him how the contract negotiations were going.”

Johnson eventually did re-up on his RSL contract, as did a few other teammates. The player transactions and CONCACAF Champions League preparations made the time go by fast for supporters of the Claret-and-Cobalt.

“For me, there isn’t an offseason,” Deslinger said. “There’s so much going on and more info for fans to follow. It made the offseason a little more bearable.”

Time flew by for Houston Dynamo season ticket holder Devika Kombacher. She may not be involved in a supporters group, but she had an equally busy offseason that included a new jersey unveiling, new stadium groundbreaking, new player introductions and a new move to the Eastern Conference – all in a matter of a couple of months.

“Change after change after change makes the time go fast and we have an early start date at home this year,” she said. “The offseason came earlier but it was faster, fuller and busier.”

With so many fresh developments surrounding her club, excuse Kombacher’s enthusiasm when she says that the MLS Cup championship “in our sights” and that the Dynamo are “ready to crush the Eastern conference.”

After all, it’s that time of year again. Every fan base is brimming with optimism and all 18 teams think they can win a title. The offseason is over.