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Gabby Rosas of the Rose City Riveters likes to think of it as cake. That stuff, those things, waiting for us at the end of. Well. (waves hands abstractly). This.
Those sweet moments of togetherness, celebration, soccer, when the world feels a little more normal and a little less upside down, if only for a few hours.
In January of 2021, that still feels far away. Nevertheless, we are in a year, where there is the prospect of soccer being played, hopefully in front of fans.
As supporter groups around the country emerge from a year of chaos and confusion, and look ahead to a new season, various obstacles and opportunities lay ahead for different supporter groups. But entering 2021, one thing remains consistent for all: Uncertainty.
For supporters of MLS side FC Cincinnati, 2020 was supposed to be their farewell year at Nippert Stadium, the football stadium on the University of Cincinnati’s campus. Crowds had packed into Nippert during the club’s USL heydays and it was the backdrop for the club’s entrance into Major League Soccer.
“I think there was a lot of disappointment in the group that we didn't get a chance to say goodbye to the place where so many great memories (and not so great to be fair) were made.” said Jared Handra, president of FC Cincinnati supporters group, Die Innenstadt. “In the end, we weren't able to attend any home matches but we did get to put up our banners and tifos for home matches, so we were there in spirit.”
In 2021, FC Cincinnati will open their new stadium, replete with all of the bells and whistles that make it a supporters dream: capo stands, tifo pulleys, a safe standing section. But, if fans will be allowed to give it the roaring introduction it deserves is still very much up in the air.
“I think if we are able to attend matches this year, the atmosphere will be incredible because we haven't been to a home match since late 2019,” said Handra. “Even before COVID-19 hit we knew this year, in particular, was going to be a difficult one due to the move. Luckily we started planning earlier and have made good progress. But now we are all also planning for matchdays at various capacities so that when we are told what we can do we can react quickly and safely.”
Charleston Battery supporter group, The Regiment, was also looking forward to a new era for one of the country’s most historic clubs.
“It started bright in mid-March with our first match being away against Atlanta 2,” said Mike Buytas, president of The Regiment. “We had a great watch party with a lot of new faces and an excitement about the new owner, new logo and new stadium. There was a buzz around the club I hadn’t seen in 20 years of being involved in the Regiment.”
Once the USL Championship season kicked off and state regulations allowed, the club slowly introduced fans into the stadium and by the second to last match were able to fill it to “capacity”, at 250 fans.
It’s unclear how many fans will be able to attend Battery matches this year, or when those matches will be, but Buytas is hopeful that it’s soon for the sake of both the fans and the club.
“By this time of year typically we have started our membership drive, have a loose idea of trips we want to make, tailgates are being planned,” Buytas said. “But everything is kind of on hold until we get some dates and we can gauge the way things are heading. I hope we can capture that buzz we had going into 2020, and start letting people in, because, to be honest, I’m not sure how long clubs can continue without matchday revenue.”
In Hartford, members of Mad Hat Massive, a Hartford Athletic supporters group, were able to complete the full season with supporters in the stands.
“We basically were allowed to have limited capacity throughout the season. We started with 25%, by the end of the season we were granted up to 40%, with social distancing measures and masks,” said Myke Furhman, founder of Mad Hat Massive.
“The year before we were packing 6,000 people into this tiny stadium, you could almost feel the ground shaking. So, it was definitely a different vibe to it, but we made do. Considering that a lot of teams were not used to playing in front of fans, even when we had 1500 people, that provides more than enough of an advantage versus some of the clubs.”
Though they faced several obstacles, 2020 helped set the stage for 2021 to be a year of collaboration between Hartford Athletic’s multiple supporters groups.
“It kind of took this pandemic type season for a lot of the supporters to really get together and work with each other,” said Furhman. “We have different names, primarily due to location and mindset, but we work together very well. So, I’m excited for that. We have some charity efforts that we’ve been working on. I’m really excited to expand the supporters culture throughout more of the city with these other groups.”
In Portland, members of Portland Thorns supporters group, the Rose City Riveters, tried to maintain as much normalcy as possible for NWSL side’s matches in 2020, even if that meant only one member of the group inside the stadium to set off smoke when goals were scored.
“That was something that was really important to the club and really important to us,” said Rosas, a member of the Riveters Steering Committee. “That celebration is one of the points of connection that we have to the players and to the live run of play.”
This year, Rosas is focusing on the health and safety of her community before the fun stuff.
“Once the vaccine becomes more widely distributed, after medical professionals, teachers, everyone who should be getting it first, gets it, I think we need to consider how to advocate for this and make sure to promote it within our organization.” Rosas said.
“The faster that the country and our states and our cities are able to vaccinate everyone with both doses, hopefully we can return to some level of play and support inside those stadiums.
“My number two concern is safety, both from a health crisis standpoint, but also, seeing what's happening in our country right now. Knowing that a lot of white supremacists and far right groups have been trying to infiltrate supporter culture and disrupt that for decades, that becomes a huge concern, and that’s something that we need to take on head on.”
“The away days and the displays and the drums and the smoke and all that stuff, that's like the reward for doing the hard work. That’s like the cake at the end of everything. Unfortunately, that cake is pretty far out right now. So we've got other work that we need to do as supporter groups and as members of our community. Drives, donations, raising awareness and looking out for each other, that’s what we need to focus on right now.”
Rosas is also looking at this challenging time as an opportunity to recruit more people, to make that cake at the end even better.
“There’s always a core group of people who do the things, right?” she said. “They bake the cake, and assemble the cake and decorate the cake, and share it with everyone. Right now, we have to figure out, how do we get more bakers. This is a really cool opportunity, if we view it that way, to say, ‘Alright, now we need to be creative to help us figure out, how do we get more people to stay tuned in and to want to participate in things. Think of how many more tiers there could be on this cake if we had a dozen more people in the kitchen.”
Though they may be in different leagues, or battling different obstacles, whether it’s Hartford, Portland, Cincinnati or Charleston, supporters around the country are facing 2021 with a common resoluteness.
According to Handra, “We'll take it week by week and figure it out, we always have.”