It’s about 30 minutes into last month’s inaugural Sacramento Republic FC soccer game against L.A. Galaxy II at the StubHub Center Track Stadium, and a group of vocal Republic supporters is itching to witness a history-making moment.
They want to see their squad score its first goal.
The group won’t have to wait long, as the Republic moves the ball into the opposing team’s third. The play is broken up, but the ball ends up bouncing toward the Galaxy II’s penalty box. As a defender attempts to clear it, he collides with his own goalkeeper. This allows hulking Republic FC forward Justin Braun to head the loose ball into an empty net.
For his post-goal celebration, Braun sprints to the stadium’s south side, leaving his ecstatic teammates in his wake. The former MLS star points to the 50 or so maroon-and-white-clad fans who have traveled roughly 400 miles for this moment. Braun kisses the club’s Bear Flag-inspired crest on his jersey while the fans – members of a supporter club called the Tower Bridge Battalion – throw beer into the air, flip off the opposing side and tackle each other on the metal benches.
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But the noise they make for the Republic’s first goal isn’t much louder than the noise they’ve made for the entire game. The Battalion had been standing and singing for the previous 30-plus minutes, trading playfully derogatory chants with L.A.’s Angel City Brigade while beating drums and waving flags. And they will stand and sing for the rest of the 90-minute match (which ends in a 1-1 tie).
It’s what they do at every game they attend. Come 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium for the Republic’s home opener against Harrisburg City Islanders, the Tower Bridge Battalion will again enthusiastically demonstrate fealty for the hometown squad (whose record is 2-2-1). The group plans to take over Section 15, directly behind the stadium’s north goal.
“Our section is all ages, and everyone is welcome,” the Battalion’s website states. “But if you want to sit, have an assigned seat, or do not want to be exposed to adult language or drinking, our section is probably not the spot for you.”
While Sacramento is no stranger to raucously loyal basketball fans, it’s just beginning to get a taste of true soccer-enthusiast culture. The Tower Bridge Battalion hopes to play a role in that introduction with its support of the city’s new USL Pro League team.
“The Kings’ fans are great. They’re loud and passionate and they support the team, but being a soccer supporter is more of an interactive experience,” said R.J. Cooper, 31, who founded the Battalion in March 2013 with friend André Barnes Jr., 34.
Promoted largely on Facebook, the Battalion has 370 members. Annual membership costs $15, and supporters receive a special scarf with the team’s colors when they sign up.
Battalion organizers expect the club, which also hosts social events such as barbecues and pub crawls, to grow when other soccer fans see the group’s level of commitment and passion.
“We have to lead by example, and I think people will want to be part of (the Battalion),” said Cooper, a litigation lawyer. “Plus you get to drink and hang out. People are ready for this.”
Both Cooper and Barnes bring firsthand supporter experience to the Battalion. Members of the American Outlaws, a supporter group for the U.S. Men’s National Team, they regularly attended San Jose Earthquakes games together; Barnes was a member of San Jose’s supporters’ group, 1906 Ultras.
“Because of our background in supporter culture, we knew we could do well, and no one else stepped up, so we decided to (form the Battalion),” said Cooper, who also serves as the group’s president.
While the Battalion respects soccer tradition with its chants and banners, it’s not a cookie-cutter organization, said Barnes, a benefit organizer who lives in Fairfield.
“I’m very wary of mimicking other groups,” Barnes said. “I think we need to represent Sacramento. We need to be unique. We can borrow from groups across the world, but I just want us to be Sacramento first.”
Supporter groups evolves
While long established in places such as Europe, South America and Mexico, supporters’ groups began to pop up in the United States in 1996 when Major League Soccer kicked off its inaugural season.
In its early years, MLS marketed itself toward families and tried to “Americanize” the sport by employing cheerleaders and playing music during live play. The only place where a European or South American soccer atmosphere existed was in the nation’s capital, home to the D.C. United supporters’ group La Barra Brava.
In 2009, MLS expanded to Seattle, and then to Portland and Vancouver two years later. These teams, along with their fan bases, had each existed in some form for 30-plus years. Thus began the “MLS 2.0” wave of supporter groups, with tattoo-clad fans creating elaborate chants, displaying section-long banners known as “tifo,” and standing and singing for the entire game.
Because of groups like Portland’s Timbers Army, along with the example provided by American Outlaws, supporter-club culture trickled down to the rest of MLS as well as the lower levels of soccer in the United States and Canada.
“Even the Timbers Army only had seven people for their first game,” Cooper said. “People see the Timbers Army on TV and they think that they can just show up and that will happen, but it’s a lot more work than that. You don’t become the Timbers Army by being meek.”
Established fan support has been one of reasons that MLS Commissioner Don Garber has awarded expansion franchises, most recently citing the roughly 8,000 fans who follow USL PRO club Orlando City SC to justify its 2015 expansion. Republic organizers hope they can secure similar numbers when they open their 8,000-seat Bonney Field stadium at Cal Expo – the team is expected to make its debut at the venue June 7 against Arizona United SC. (Until then, home games will be played at Hughes).
Republic owner Warren Smith has said obtaining an MLS franchise is the ultimate goal. With more than 5,000 season ticket holders, his team seems to be off to a promising start. The Tower Bridge Battalion also plans to help out with the cause.
“We’re not under any delusions that we’re the most important factor, but we know if we can fill the stadium and provide good support that MLS is watching,” Cooper said. “We can make it an easy decision for them. If we rock it this year in USL PRO and next year, then we can start thinking about the next level.”
Back at the inaugural game in Carson, Smith makes an appearance in the Battalion’s section. When members notice him, they begin to sing him an early “Happy Birthday.” Smith protests, telling the supporters to focus on the game.
When the final whistle blows on the 1-1 draw, the Battalion members hold their scarves above their heads as the players jog over to applaud their supporters.
“Sacramento fans are passionate,” Cooper says as the group is escorted out by security. “They just need to know how” to support the city’s new soccer team.
The Battalion is disappointed the team didn’t win, but as they head to a local bar, they receive some great late-breaking news: Smith is buying.
Evan Ream covers Sacramento Republic FC for The Davis Enterprise.