Back in mid-January, Austin FC and Major League Soccer hosted a ceremony to announce the Texan club as the league’s 27th franchise. The usual rituals associated with these sort of events, the kind North American soccer has grown accustomed to in recent years, were observed: Don Garber made an appearance on stage, a new logo was unveiled and proclamations were made about MLS’ newest destination being a true “soccer city.”
The club’s supporters group also handed out an Austin FC chant hymnal, giving fans two years to practice before the team’s first MLS game.
The songs, which included one about the city council vote that permitted the construction of the franchise’s new stadium, printed on pamphlets drew widespread social media derision, but they also illustrated just how central chants are now considered to the identity of an MLS team.
Attend a Los Angeles Galaxy game at Dignity Health Sports Park and you’ll most likely hear their fans’ chant of “Oh Sweet Galaxy,” to the tune of Italian folk song “Bella Ciao.”
At Mercedes Benz Stadium for an Atlanta United match, you’ll almost certainly be treated to the Georgia club’s interpretation of the “Viking Clap” made famous by Iceland fans at the 2016 European Championships.
Right across MLS, every team has a song book, albeit not necessarily printed on the back of a pamphlet. Along with TIFOs and marches, it has become an integral part of the sport’s culture in North America, contributing to the color and variety of a league growing faster than any other soccer league on the planet.
Not so long ago, the chants of MLS supporters and fans groups made for a convenient punchline. Eurosnobs pointed out how derivative many songs were, how chants heard at North American stadiums were just English or European chants in a different accent.
Whether or not that was true, it’s a view that doesn’t reflect the constantly evolving culture around songs and chants that now exists in MLS. Now seen as the favored league of a more progressive, diverse America, supporters are drawing inspiration from far and wide. MLS fandom boasts its own identity.
“We have punks and skins, hip-hop heads, and cumbia lovers,” said Angel Figueroa of the Angel City Brigade, an LA Galaxy fan group. “We try to draw our influence from all of our different backgrounds just as much as we draw influence from international supporter scenes. Our goal has always been to create something as distinct and vibrant as Los Angeles itself and to create something uniquely Angelino.”
Of all the criticisms of MLS, the accusation that the league lacks authenticity is perhaps the most common. The blurred definition of what is “authentic” and what isn’t makes this criticism hard to truly pin down, but with the league now into its third decade of existence, there is a feeling that North American soccer fans are increasingly comfortable in their own skin.
“It’s perfect. It’s where we should be,” says Curtis Jenkins of the Atlanta United fan group Footie Mob. “I think the ubiquity of MLS, the Canadian Premier League and USL lends itself to creating pockets of culture where new things can happen. It invites more people in and therefore you get those uniquely American touches, and then regional touches.”
It’s this subculture that harnesses the creation of chants in the first place. Getting thousands of fans all to sing the same song has been something of an unspoken art form, not just in MLS, in English and European soccer, too. But like so much in the sport, it starts in the grassroots.
“It starts in smaller groups,” explained TJ Leronimo of The Third Rail, a New York City FC fans group. “They can be at watch parties or on busses to away games. Ones that stick out get traction organically, and move into heavier use.”
Despite the evolution of MLS fan culture over the past decade or so, it is still common for supporters to take the lead from elsewhere when it comes to chants.
“Just in the Angel City Brigade leadership alone we have people from Belgium, El Salvador, Mexico, and Norway, as well as members from England, France, Argentina, Peru, etc.” says Figueroa. “So many of us grew up with the sport, hence why supporter culture isn’t something entirely new to most of us. It’s common for us to look to European Ultras and South American Barras for inspiration.”
But is this really any different to what happens in European soccer?
The soundtrack to Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final last season, for instance, was “Allez Allez Allez,” a song borrowed from Napoli fans who had been singing it for years. Teams that now boast their own version of the chant include Atletico Madrid, Cardiff City, Porto and Rangers. How many different teams have claimed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as their anthem?
Soccer fans, regardless of which side of the Atlantic they inhabit, are always looking for inspiration, for chants and songs to repurpose and make their own.
It’s about where you take that inspiration, though, and North American soccer fans are using it to build a culture of their own.
Not so long ago, many accused MLS supporters of being like “little kids playing dress run,” as one soccer commentator put it, but that allegation no longer holds up.
From New York Red Bulls fans’ chant of “Sos Cagon Washington,” a song familiar to River Plate supporters, to DC United fans’ adaptation of “Oh! Pilsung Korea,” made famous by South Korean fans at the 2002 World Cup, MLS has always drawn influence from far and wide.
Now, with new franchises and markets being opened up to elite level soccer almost year-on-year, the soundtrack to the league is becoming increasingly colourful.
MLS and North American soccer has never been more visible, globally, than right now.
For instance, at least two league games are shown live on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom every weekend, exposing English fans to the soccer culture now being cultivated on the other side of the Atlantic.
How long before some of that culture starts to permeate through the wider soccer community? This would be the true mark of maturity for North American soccer culture.
A previous version of this story did not clarify that the chant hymnal was handed out by the Austin Anthem supporters group.