The U.S. men's national team performance in the 2002 World Cup inspired a generation of American fans to love soccer (and find their way to MLS). But it didn’t just inspire Americans. Budapest-born Tamas Kun admired the Yanks’ never-say-die spirit, and started following American soccer as a result.
In 2010, a Hungarian network began airing one MLS game a week. Around the same time, Clint Dempsey was emerging as a leader for a spunky Fulham team. (That squad also included Hungarian player Zoltan Gera, who, according to Kun doubled as Dempsey’s fishing buddy).
Now, Eurosport carries a full package of MLS matches, and to support the growing subculture of Hungarian MLS fans, Kun has created the Jenkifoci (Yank Soccer) web site. He’s also moved into broadcasting, with the Hungarian Eurosport broadcasters bringing him on as a color commentator for some matches.
While Kun calls himself a fan of the whole league, the Hungarian connections at Sporting KC (coach Peter Vermes, recently departed striker Krizstian Nemeth) make that his obvious first choice. He admires the hard work, intelligence, and determination of American players, but he also likes being able to follow a league that’s growing up in front of us all.
“Watching this league is like watching the European soccer in the early years, in the golden years,” Kun said. “It is like traveling back in time to the early 1900s. There are newly formed teams, and newly formed fan bases, experiencing first kicks, first games, inaugural seasons. You can witness historical events.” And, as Tamas points out, MLS’ emphasis on social media makes it easier for fans in Hungary, or anywhere else for that matter, watch history being made.
R. Scott Hoisington
Doha, Qatar (by way of Kansas City)
Hoisington found soccer in his hometown of Kansas City through his son’s years of playing youth soccer, during which the team would go to Wizards games. Once the pro team made its transition into Sporting KC and to Sporting Park, Hoisington stayed on board. But he's now following his team from afar while working on a significant soccer-related project: He’s a project manager for construction of one of the World Cup 2022 stadiums in Qatar.
Hoisington–still a season ticket holder for this team back home–has had to surmount some obstacles in order to follow MLS in the Arabian Peninsula. First off, one must get a residency permit to get internet service in Qatar, and that takes several months. Then there’s the nine-hour time difference to contend with, if he chooses to watch games live (MLS is broadcast on Abu Dhabi Sports in the Middle East).
But he’s sorted everything out in anticipation for the start of the 2016 season.
Hoisington also takes in local matches, including some of the recent Asian U23 championships, and he’s found a favorite team in the Qatari top-flight league, Al Gharafa. Or, rather, it found him, when former Sporting KC forward Krizstian Nemeth was transferred there in January.
Groningen, the Netherlands
When Johan Kappelhof recently moved from FC Groningen to the Chicago Fire, one Groningen resident in particular perked up. Marius Hollenga, 32, is one of the Netherlands’ most devoted MLS fans, catching games locally on Eurosport.
While the Fire’s now come upon Hollenga's radar, he’s a fan of the entire league, though he follows two other teams based on his time in the U.S. As he’s partial to Florida, he’s been keeping an eye on Orlando City matches (plus, as he notes, “They also have Kaká, which helps."). Also, his love of Philadelphia (plus the Earnie Stewart connection) makes him something of a Union fan, too.
“I’m a big fan of football in general,” he says. “I like how it brings people together, some might argue that it's ‘fake’ to support teams that are far away from you, but that's a very old-fashioned way of looking at things. What I like about MLS specifically is that it's just that tiny bit different from what I used to,” noting in particular the playoff system that doesn’t exist in other leagues around the world.
Though he’s not aware of groups of fans congregating for MLS games in the Netherlands, he still feels connected to the growing global MLS audience. As he notes, “Due to the power of Twitter, everyone is potentially local.”
Craig Tower splits his time between Baltimore and Bamako, but because he lived in Chicago for 10 years, he’s become a Fire fan and continues to follow them from the West African metropolis.
Thanks to a 2005 friendly between the Fire and AC Milan, which included a memorable Chris Rolfe goal, Tower saw MLS’s potential. Today he admires the league for its role in developing American soccer players.
He’s even turned a group of friends in Bamako on to MLS, putting together viewing parties and, as he puts it, “explaining things like DPs, TAM, and GAM.” (FOX Sports Africa carries MLS games.) He’s even brought back some fan gear from Chicago to share with the new fans, including a Fire flag now adorning the wall of the neighborhood bar where they gather.
Tower says the fact that the league features prominent African players like Kei Kamara, Didier Drogba, and Bamako native Bakary Soumare makes it all the more relevant for the fans that he's led to the league.
It’s becoming more and more commonplace for American and Canadian soccer fans to flock to pubs in the early morning hours (or, alternately, to settle into their living rooms) to watch Barclays Premier League. But Louis East is leading the charge for English fans to stay up at night to tune into Sky Sports to watch MLS.
East is one of the founders of MLSGB.com, a website geared toward keeping English fans informed about MLS.
“As bizarre as it sounds, I don't actually support an individual MLS club,” he says. “When I started following the league, I watched with a completely open mind and have never taken to one team. I enjoy not favoring one side as every game is exciting. I can enjoy every goal that goes in that way.”
And as East likes to point out to potential new fans, MLS’s average of 2.76 goals per game in 2015 trumps all of the top European leagues’ current season totals. “Teams aren’t afraid to attack,” he says. “That leads to end-to-end games, full of drama and it's exciting all year round. Obviously, things get even more exciting once the playoffs start.”
Citing the passion of American soccer fans, and their growing knowledge of the sport, he says, “I can't speak highly enough of the support we've received from American-based MLS fans since starting MLSGB.com. Whether through Twitter, Reddit or comments on articles, we've been given such positive feedback from MLS supporters. I think many recognize that we're trying to help the league grow and they welcome that.”
Orlando, Florida and Brazil
There are two obvious connections that link Orlando City SC to Brazil. Chairman and majority owner Flavio Augusto de Silva, and star player (and reigning MLS All-Star Game MVP Kaká). So it makes perfect sense that Brazilian fans, both in the US and Brazil, would gravitate toward MLS’s purple team.
Joao Oliveira has overseen supporters' group Torcida Orlando City Brasil since 2014, when the team was announced. Initially a group of about 300 fans, they’ve since blossomed to an international network connected via Facebook (with more than 2500 members) and other social media channels.
For Brazilian-Americans and native Brazilians in Orlando, the group hosts watch parties--Globosat shows MLS in Brazil--and pre-game tailgates, which Oliveira points out the members really enjoy, and were part of the effort to “Fill the Bowl” for last season’s historic home opener. Though they’re a sanctioned international fan group, Joao says they’re moving toward having one concentrated, supporters' group-style presence in the stadium this season.
They also keep the discussion going online with fans in Brazil–primarily in Portugeuse—who watch from home and are familiarizing themselves with the finer points of MLS. This year, they plan to add an app to the current website and social media package they’re employing.
“I’d say 90 percent of our members are fascinated by the organization and marketing of MLS,” Oliveira says. “And, of course, news about famous players are a big part of our discussions.” And that doesn’t just extend to the men–the group recently heralded the signing of Monica Alves, the first Brazilian player to land with OCSC’s sister NWSL team, the Orlando Pride.
Oliveira admits, regarding last year’s oh-so-close-to-the-playoffs finish, “They got frustrated at the end, but were happy because it had been a good first season overall.” And for fans both north and south of the Equator, there’s optimism that a legendary Brazilian player will lead them to more success in their second season.
Sixth Borough Blues
When NYCFC announced its arrival, and especially when it revealed its sky-blue home kits, there was little doubt as to which MLS team to which Manchester City fans would gravitate. But Carl Gozem says he might have adopted them as his MLS team anyway.
“I've been a Manchester City season ticket holder for over 14 years, so when the City Football Group announced the creation of NYCFC, I was immediately a fan," he says. "But, given my love for New York, I'd still be a fan even without the connection to Manchester City.”
Gozem worked to get Sixth Borough Blues up and running in March 2015. “My idea was to get as many potential fans engaged, interested and talking," he says. "It's a league that has been very much overlooked this side of the pond but, having had an interest in the league for a number of years, I just wanted to make the most of people finally giving what is honestly a great, exciting, unpredictable league the attention it finally deserves.”
The response surpassed Gozem's initial expectations. And now with a familiar face at NYCFC’s helm (Patrick Vieira, best known in England as a key member of Arsenal’s Invincibles squad), he expects even more growth this year. A lot of that has to do with what happens behind the field as well as on the field.
“I love the atmosphere at the stadiums,” he says. “Playing at Yankee Stadium isn't ideal, but the fans embrace it and they create an atmosphere that plenty of teams must be envious of. I talk to many American fans and they can't believe that I'm so amazed by the atmospheres created across the U.S. You just don’t get that in stadiums here.
“Here in the UK, clubs attempt to create singing sections within the ground. These end up being small areas either side of the away fans who will often chant amongst themselves. When you watch MLS games, you'll see entire ends of stadiums being dedicated to supporters clubs," he continues. "The sheer number of supporters in these sections seems to create an atmosphere that the rest of the stadium just can't help but get involved with.
"Also, supporters seem to dedicate so much more of their time supporting they club. The creation of intricate tifo is just one way this is shown. Inside the stadium, fans are so much more upbeat and show a desire to make noise and really push their team into another gear on the field. You just don't really get that here in the UK anymore. You'll here away supporters at games singing, 'Is this a library?' That really says it all.”