It was a great experience to go to another MLS stadium last weekend, not least because we were hosted by the Fire Supporters Club who looked after us grandly. I wanted to share a few observations picked up over the weekend because I think they are of interest to all soccer fans. Maybe we could even learn some things from them.
You are probably indifferent to the fate of Bakary Soumare as he is a Chicago Fire player (well, he was up until today anyway). However, I had the pleasure of meeting him and the manner in which we met was one of the reasons why the MLS is better for soccer fans than any of the European leagues.
As one of the weaker leagues financially - that may be a bit of an understatement - MLS players are not as coddled by agents and clubs and can go about their lives in a relatively anonymous way. That allows them to have ready access to the fans that would be unthinkable in Europe or similarly unlikely here in leagues like the NFL or NBA. Money clearly destroys any consistent and genuine interaction between fans and players.
As many of you probably know, Soumare, a Mali international, Chicago regular and MLS All-Star, had fallen out with the Chicago coach, Denis Hamlett. Whatever the rights and wrongs and whoever was at fault over their altercation (there are more than two sides to every story), Soumare showed genuine love for the fans that help pay his wages. He turned up to the supporter tailgate on Sunday to hang out with them and say his goodbyes. The fans loved him and are desperately disappointed he is leaving. As he told me and as was confirmed today, Soumare is moving on to play for Boulogne in the French first division. "It has all worked out for the best," he said to me Sunday, while acknowledging that he will never have such a relationship with the fans in France. "I know most of these guys by first name and by face and we text each other every day." I thought it was a very honorable gesture to turn up and say such goodbyes. Clearly, he had little to lose as he had fallen out with the powers that be but he could just have easily stayed away. Here's the MLS/Chicago Fire announcement on his move.
Some other observations. The Chicago Section 8 fans are a passionate lot. They have a very nice spot behind one of the goals that is all theirs and they make a lot of noise and generally get under the opponents' skin. There is no doubt in my mind that they were a prime reason why the Fire came storming back to get the victory. Some good chants too. "You're going home in a Cook County ambulance" to an injured Pablo Mastroeni was one notable one. They didn't stop until Pablo dazily stood up after a long time on the ground. It was explained to me, later, that Cook County Hospital has or had the worst reputation in all of Chicago for emergency care. But, before you start thinking they are treated better than the fans in Colorado and that everything is hunky dory in Chicago, I heard many stories over the weekend that were so simliar to what I have heard here. I'm not going to go into any detail here but, suffice it to say, without fans there is no club and the clubs can do so much more than they do because they very often don't really get that.
There were a lot more Latino fans than in Denver. Granted, they have Blanco to follow but we should have more Hispanic fans at Rapids' games than we do. I liked the fact that every public announcement at the game was also said in Spanish.
One thing I didn't like and which is endemic to many US sports events. When you say you are going to have a minute's silence for fallen heroes, you really should back it up and have a minute's silence. Not 20 seconds at halftime when people are too busy eating and drinking to pay any attention. And don't then suddenly come out at the end of those 20 not so silent seconds and offer a pizza to eat for just $2.99. For all of England football fans' faults (witness this week's West Ham Millwall problems), fans there do generally respect a minute's silence, the silence lasts a minute and it is done at the start of a game before fans get too involved. If you really want to honor people's sacrifice, it would just take a few easy steps to try and do it properly.