MLS: Difference to English supporters inevitable

CINCINNATI, OHIO - JULY 18: FC Cincinnati fans before the start of the game against the D.C. United at Nippert Stadium on July 18, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO - JULY 18: FC Cincinnati fans before the start of the game against the D.C. United at Nippert Stadium on July 18, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

Former Portland Timbers defender Mikael Silvestre has commented on the difference between MLS supporters and English supporters. His somewhat critical opinion, while perhaps valid, is an inevitable consequence of the league structure.

An Englishman who has since moved across the pond to cover Major League Soccer, when I first experienced a live MLS game, one thing stood out to me more than anything else: the atmosphere in the stadium.

Unlike in England where rivals fans compete with one another to provide the fiercest support for their teams, in MLS, that same raucous, contested, sometimes violent feeling is not quite as present. The demographic of support is younger. More families are present. Soccer attracts a more cerebral fan than the tribal character of English support.

Someone who understands this difference better than many is Mikael Silvestre, who spent the majority of his career in the Premier League before moving to Portland in the latter stages of his career. When speaking with Bet Pennsylvaniathe Frenchman made some interesting comments regarding the difference in fandom between the two leagues and cultures:

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"“The UK has really unique support. I’ll just give you an example, when the defender passes the ball to an outfield player and if there is an opponent coming, everybody says ‘man on!’. As an audience you don’t realise because you’re there, it’s so loud and everybody participates. They really pay attention to the game and they focus on the ball all the time. This is a tactical awareness and knowledge of the crowd is amazing and the participation of football in the UK is huge.”"

Silvestre continued:

"“As fans and as players we enjoy that. In the US they don’t have this. The game is different, they support the team, they sing, they, they chant, they yell and everything, but knowing the game like the supporters do in England is really unique, football is so special.”"

These come across as a little negative for the MLS support. And there are certainly issues with the reputation of MLS fans in the global sport. The chants are clumsy and childish, some of the terms are clunky, commercialised, and overly American, and the lack of atmosphere can be problematic at times.

However, much of these issues are both not as detrimental as Silvestre suggests they are and a natural consequence of the league. MLS fans are inherently newer and often less knowledgeable than their English or European counterparts. Many have not been supporters of the sport all their lives, and those that have are often very young.

Secondly, there is geography. Away fans provide much of the atmosphere in England, but when your league spans from Vancouver to Miami and everywhere in between, you are not going to get many away fans at matches. It is a simple consequence of the area that the league covers.

Finally, the family-like surroundings of MLS games is something to be celebrated. Alright, they may not provide the same passion and fire as English or South American supporters, but it is encouraging to see a new fanbase emerge as a result of the growth of the sport. Kids embracing the game, a comfortable, easy atmosphere, a place where the sport comes first without the negative impacts that rivalry encourages. These are not elements to be criticised but celebrated.

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So yes, MLS supporters are different to English — and many other — supporters. But that is a natural consequence of the youthfulness of the league, the geography that it covers, and the refreshing growth of the sport, and that should not be criticised but celebrated.