With the announcement that Arsenal Football Club will be the 2016 MLS All-Star opponent, the Gunners become the ninth English Premier League club to challenge the MLS All-Stars. Last year, when Tottenham Hotspur traveled to Denver, Sam Stejskal took a look at the impact of split allegiances created when MLS fans are confronted with the arrival of their international clubs of choice.
Scan three rows up into the midfield stands at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park during Wednesday night’s AT&T MLS All-Star Game, and you just might spot Ryan Brashier.
He’ll be easy enough to pick out – just look for a burgundy and white Colorado Rapids scarf draped over a Tottenham Hotspur jersey.
A Rapids season ticket holder and one of three board members of Tottenham’s officially sanctioned Colorado Spurs supporters’ club, Brashier’s allegiances will be tested on Wednesday night (9 pm ET; FOX Sports 1, UniMás in the US; TSN, RDS in Canada). He doesn’t quite know yet if he’ll be pulling for the MLS All-Stars – who are coached by Colorado manager Pablo Mastroeni and feature Rapids players Drew Moor and Sam Cronin – or if he’ll put his weight behind Tottenham, the English Premier League club he’s helped find a foothold in Denver.
“I’ll be pulling for…that’s a difficult question,” laughed Brashier (pictured below). “Actually, you know I haven’t really thought about who I’m going to pull for. I think I’m just going to try to enjoy the event.”
He won’t be the only one feeling conflicted. While polarized supporters on either end of the MLS vs. Europe spectrum make much, much more noise, it’s folks like Brashier – those who support both an MLS club and a European team – that seem to make up the majority of fans.
“Most people that I’ve come across are in the middle,” said Aaron Switzer, an FC Dallas fan and co-founder of the Dallas Spurs supporters’ club. “They follow both. They may follow one more closely than the other … and everybody has their own taste, but I would say the middle ground is by far the largest.”
Maximizing enjoyment is perhaps the main reason why many fans support both an MLS and EPL club. Instead of focusing on one league and deriding fans of the other as “glory hunters” or “supporters of an inferior product,” those who support clubs in both leagues tend to be in it for the love of the game, taking advantage of the opportunity to pull for two teams who will likely never meet in a competitive match.
“I just love being a part of something on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Steve Phillips (pictured below), a 25-year-old New York Red Bulls season ticket holder and an Arsenal fan. “It’s just kind of cool supporting a team that’s all the way over in Europe and feeling like I’m a part of that, but at the same time going to games every weekend and being a part of the Red Bulls, as well.”
Of course, rooting for both an MLS and EPL club doesn’t come without its complications. Fans must learn and love two rosters, track two sets of transfer rumors and, perhaps most significantly, integrate into two disparate fan cultures.
Like many supporters, Switzer, a regular attendee of FC Dallas matches, nipped any potential culture issues in the bud. After realizing he’d “been missing out on this beautiful game my whole life” and devoting himself to FCD during the 2010 World Cup, the 33-year-old started the process of picking an EPL club at the urging of some fellow fans. He vetted all 20 teams, picking Tottenham only after he knew they’d be a good fit for him.
“My first sports love was the [NBA’s] Dallas Mavericks," said Switzer (pictured below). "If you remember in 2010, they had not won the title yet, and the Mavs were sort of known for playing this entertaining, beautiful basketball, but they’re never going to win the big one. And that was what people were saying about Tottenham at the time, that’s what people are still saying about Tottenham. That was the first thing that stuck out to me, was ‘Hey, I know how that feels, that’s how I feel already as a Mavericks fan.’ And once I started watching the games and getting into the culture a little bit, I found I had a soft spot for them.”
That’s not to mention the time commitment that goes into supporting teams on opposite sides of an ocean, with fans often waking up at ungodly hours to watch their EPL team before eventually heading to their local MLS stadium to support their club in person later that same day.
“It’s a full day. I find myself not being able to sleep through the matches, so I’ll find myself awake and watching them, much to the chagrin of my wife who doesn’t like me screaming at the TV at six in the morning,” Brashier said. “But we’ll get up and head over to [Denver’s Three Lions Pub, the home base of Colorado Spurs] and have a breakfast and watch the Tottenham match from there. It does turn into a long day, especially when the Rapids are at home, but it’s a labor of love.”
It’s not just American MLS fans jumping on with EPL teams; two-club love extends across the pond, too. Buoyed by Sky Sports’ coverage of the league – the network shows at least one match per week – a growing number of Brits are getting in on MLS.
Jack Shaw (pictured below, left) was already somewhat of an oddity in his hometown of Southport, England, a city of 90,000 just up the coast from Liverpool, for being a lifelong Chelsea supporter. The 25-year-old cut an even more curious figure when he began following MLS after his Blues lost the 2012 All-Star Game, even if his decision to adopt the Portland Timbers as his North American club has protected him from a bit of stick from the Liverpool-, Everton- and Manchester United-loving locals.
“I get a lot of backlash where I’m from for supporting Chelsea because it’s not the team from ‘round here,” Shaw said. “That’s the thing with England, people judge you a lot on what football team you support. So sometimes, when people ask you who you follow, it’s easier to tell them, ‘Oh the Portland Timbers in MLS.’ They just look at you like ‘Alright, OK,’ and they’ve got nothing.
“But that kind of leads into a discussion on MLS. We talk about it, they show it over here on Sky Sports as well on Sunday nights, so they go and catch whatever match is on over here that week. It’s good. It’s definitely a growing league over here.”
Fans like Brashier, Switzer, Phillips and Shaw are growing the game not just by avidly supporting their local club, but also by pulling equally hard for one thousands of miles away. The phenomenon isn’t new or unique, and it is a bit strange, but the setup works – for them and for countless others.
“It really is strange because I take a lot of pride in being a fan of the local teams, no matter how good or bad they are. It’s a badge of honor and it means a lot,” said Switzer. “That’s obviously different with Tottenham, but I feel like if I were to be embodied by a Premier League team, I would be Tottenham. They reflect me, and everything they’ve gone through reflects me. And it’s so weird that FC Dallas and Tottenham mean the same to me, even though the circumstances are completely different.
“Being a fan of teams in both leagues, it’s just awesome.”