January is a month of beginnings, and even though most leagues around the world are still in mid-season, the fact remains that starting anew is something of a perennial feature in soccer. New beginnings in the sport can happen at any time and take a range of forms, from a complete turnaround in fortunes brought on by a new star player, to the erasure of vital parts of a team’s history as they move to a new stadium. Similarly, starting out as a new fan can evoke feelings ranging from the exhilaration of new love, to an uncomfortable sense of intrusion, to the impostor-syndrome uncertainty that comes with the label of the “bandwagon” fan.
The sheer multitude of new beginnings that soccer offers us as fans is something I’ve thought a lot about this year, in particular because I recently experienced nearly all of them at once. After several years of supporting a team over 4,000 miles away with a fervor that bordered on the nonsensical (I’ve never been to see Barcelona play but I love Andrés Iniesta unconditionally), I decided to try regularly attending the matches of my local team, DC United. Local fandom felt like something that was missing from my soccer repertoire, an experience others had that I’d come to romanticize: weekends at the park, a regular spot in the stands, a scrappy group of perennial strugglers you come to love in spite of yourself. At the same time, however, my local team was embarking on its own new beginnings: a controversial move to a new stadium, a flashy new signing in Wayne Rooney, and—as would soon become apparent—new winning ways. Looking back on my first few months of local fandom, I’ve realized that it was a perfect storm for everything soccer fans love, and hate, about new beginnings. Inspired (in part) by my recent experience, I present a taxonomy of soccer newness, an attempt to make sense of the many ways we experience beginnings in this sport.
The New Manager Bounce
The belief that a new manager—any new manager—will turn a streak of losses into an overnight success is a rare jewel of pure optimism in the trash heap of pessimism that sometimes surrounds soccer fandom. The New Manager Bounce is the sporting placebo effect, the new beginning that has no further virtue than its own newness. On its surface, it’s a nearly ridiculous concept: the idea that a manager, in the span of the hours between their hiring and their first match in charge, can actually make significant changes. But the thing is, belief has its own effects. A squad that thinks its fortunes have changed might actually run faster, a player who thinks they could suddenly become a starter might train harder, and fans who feel they’ve turned a new leaf might just cheer louder.
Inevitably, though, the New Manager Bounce is not built to last. Hope can sustain you for three to five matches at best, and then you’re back to relying on pesky things like tactical acumen, personnel management, and training regimens. Faith in the new manager bounce is ultimately naïve, because something being new doesn’t erase what came before it. Your team is still made up of the same people who were losing a week ago. Moreover, your “new” manager was not created from the ether to save you. They are also a person who was available because they got fired from their last job, likely by a team needing a turnaround of its own. In any case, this is a kind of beginning I tend to watch with detached amusement—I refuse to get attached to any manager after Pep Guardiola broke my heart by leaving FC Barcelona. My feelings towards new managers yet to be tested by DC United, a team that got all the newness it needed in a different kind of miracle personnel acquisition: the new signing.
The New Signing
The New Signing shares some features with the New Manager Bounce, including the blind faith that a single person can fix a club’s entrenched structural problems. Such was the narrative around Wayne Rooney’s arrival to the nation’s capital. He was heralded as “D.C.’s latest savior” who single-handedly rescued the team “in a third act worthy of a mythic hero.” This level of belief was on evidence in every match I attended, from the sea of Rooney #9 kits so new they practically still had their tags, to the fans screaming at every DC United player to “pass it to Rooney” no matter where he was on the pitch. Rooney offered new hope, and despite the many dire predictions that he was washed up in Europe, he delivered, scoring incredible free kicks, making improbable tackles, and turning DC United into a team that was exhilarating to watch.
Much like the New Manager Bounce, though, the Wayne Rooney Effect was perhaps as much grandiose myth as reality. At the very least, Rooney didn’t do it alone. The new stadium played a role in the turnaround, as did the fact that the team played 15 of its last 20 regular season matches there. Players like Paul Arriola and Luciano Acosta brought magic to the pitch, and not just because of how they linked up with their new teammate. In particular, the return of keeper and club icon Bill Hamid (around the same time as Rooney’s signing) deserves far more attention than it got. Watching Rooney’s trajectory, and its treatment by the media, reveals one of the paradoxes of Major League Soccer: its most visible brand of “newness” comes from players considered too old for Europe. Everything old is new again, and while this is often cause for overseas observers to look down on MLS, there’s really a kind of beauty to it.
It’s also a metaphor for the fan culture as a whole, which warrants a more nuanced treatment than it sometimes gets. There is no shortage of articles, in tones ranging from bemused tolerance to culturalist hand-wringing, lamenting the embarrassment of Americans stealing British fan practices. But while MLS fans do draw on some old English traditions, they also bring in traditions from around the sporting globe, and they make them new. There’s a lot more going on in MLS than the rejuvenation of English practices, especially in clubs like DC United that have a multilingual, multicultural fanbase. Ultimately, this tells a metaphorical story about fandom: we make “new” fan culture by drawing on an amalgamation of various parts of our past, all while looking forward to how they will become our own new beginnings. One of the things I love most about attending DC United matches is how clearly everyone’s previous affiliations, knowledge, and journeys through the sport were on display in the kits they wore. At each match I sat in the stands marveling at how many varied non-DC United kits would walk by (I even, at one point, turned it into a game of kit-identification Bingo). Fans came up and down the aisles with the world’s most famous names like Messi and Neymar on their backs, but there were many others who wore lesser-known names or kits, that spoke to places they had visited, countries where they’d lived, or the heritage of their parents or grandparents. While some sportswriters look down on wearing anything other than your team’s colors, I see it as part of the MLS magic of making past experiences new again.
The New Stadium
Everybody loves a new signing. Almost everybody loves a new manager, especially when things haven’t been going well. A new stadium, though, rarely debuts without some sort of controversy behind it, as was the case for DC United’s Audi Field, which saw its opening match on July 14th, 2018. As Catherine Addington’s 2016 piece for Unusual Efforts explains, there was already cause for worry even before the actual move from crumbling, raccoon-infested RFK Stadium to shiny new digs: would United’s vibrant and diverse base of long-time fans be priced out in favor of higher-paying newcomers, as is so often the case with stadium moves? In a place like DC it was impossible to ignore the connections between an expensive new stadium and the gentrification of the city itself. And indeed, in the early weeks of Audi Field’s opening, it seemed like fans’ worst fears were confirmed. Two of the club’s major supporting groups, La Barra Brava and the District Ultras, were left out in the cold when the club made an exclusive deal with the Screaming Eagles to provide blocks of tickets for resale to members. As Kim McCauley’s deep dive shows, there was an overwhelming feeling that DC United’s directors were “motivated by a desire to get a new fanbase with [the] new stadium,” in particular a fanbase “with a bit more money to spend.” This came as a slap in the face to fans who had stuck with the club through thick and very, very thin losing years.
So when I decided to walk into this stadium as a new fan, I knew I was walking into some very complicated dynamics. I considered not attending at all, hesitant to see myself as one of the new arrivals used to squeeze others out. I was encouraged when DC United struck a deal with La Barra Brava and the District Ultras, reopening Audi Field to many of its biggest fans. But was that enough? I honestly still ask myself this, and it’s not a new question in a global sport that is increasingly driven by financial gain. Looking at Audi Field with new-fan eyes highlighted the two worlds that collide in soccer fandom all over the world: the beautiful game that is there for everyone to love, no matter who they are or where they’re from; and a capitalist corporate nightmare where every team is owned, sponsored, and promoted by companies eager to sell out to the highest bidder. When do the moral quandaries raised by the latter cause us to abandon the former? I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question, or to know whether it would be better for me to stay home every weekend in protest of it all. But I will say that some of these very old issues are raised with a more pressing urgency when you’re a new fan. At the very least, all of it made me walk into fandom with a high level of caution, respectful of any wariness people might have of my sudden arrival. It also made me think about the other, perhaps less-warranted attitudes towards new fans: not just the ones who show up at the stadium for the first time, but those who buy the kit of the team that just won the trophy, or who suddenly turn World Cup fanatics in June. Just like the signing of a new manager has its positive icon in the “new manager bounce,” the enthusiasm of a new supporter has its much-vilified representative in the “bandwagon” fan.
The New Fan
The Bandwagon Fan, in particular, is derided for only showing up as things are going well, and in starting to follow DC United, that was never my intention. On the contrary, after several years of people doubting my assurances that I was a Barça fan because I loved the team, and not just because I loved winning, part of my goal was to learn to love a losing team. That kind of fandom seemed like it offered a kind of soccer fan street-cred that I sorely lacked. And given their last few seasons, DC United seemed like the perfect choice for the team I was going to love to hate.
And then they started winning. A lot. They won all but two of their regular-season games at Audi Field and rocketed themselves from the bottom of the table into a playoff spot. Between the new stadium, Wayne Rooney, and the improbable streak of wins, I started to wonder: what kind of experiences are there, really, that offer credibility for a new fan . . . and why is it important? Why do we value sticking it out with a bunch of perennial losers over the ability to fall hard and fast for skillful play and the joy of winning? Being a fan, like falling in love, is an emotion that grows in depth and significance over time, and in today’s new-money-driven sports culture, it’s important to recognize the intangible values of longevity and loyalty. But what about falling in love at first sight?
Because the truth is, I fell hard and fast for this team, and it felt incredible. In part, it was all about the newness factor: DC United offered me so many experiences I had simply never had before as a fan, and I loved them for it. For the first time in my soccer-watching life, I had a regular path I took to the stadium on match day. I had my regular spot in the cheap seats high up in the stands, songs I quickly learned the words to. Each time I walked over from the metro, I had that moment where I turned a corner and the stadium came into view. I loved the thought that it was my DC version of a turn taken by millions of soccer fans in cities I’ve never visited and can’t even picture. I learned what it felt like to watch your player charge down a one-on-one with the goalkeeper right below you, heard for the first time the eerie hush that falls over thousands of people in the second before they know if a penalty kick has gone in. I didn’t need more than a few weeks to love all that, and the team that made it happen.
But at the same time, even I felt dubious about the value of a fandom acquired so quickly for a team that couldn’t stop winning. There’s just no denying the emotional pull that history and loyalty to a club have, and it’s hard to sit on the outside of that as a new fan and realize how long you’re going to have to wait and look in. This longing for legitimacy, I found, also comes with a paradoxical feeling of moral superiority towards those who show up just after you, a kind of misguided attempt to confer legitimacy on yourself. Before I went all-in on my plan to become a new superfan, I actually did attend a match at RFK, on a night they happened to be handing out a rather unique free t-shirt. Any time I wear it to Audi Field, I imagine people might recognize it from the “old days” and think of me as someone who deserves to be there, unlike all the newcomers coming to gawk at Wayne Rooney.
My experience also made me wonder how much the impostor feelings of new fandom overlap or are compounded by the impostor feelings that surround female fandom. The question of “Do I really belong here?” took on many layers for me in my first months at Audi field. Showing up as a new fan can be a very different experience when you are—like I am—someone with the privilege to afford tickets when others cannot, and when you are—like I also am—a woman used to being looked down on by male fans wondering what I’m doing watching/attending/talking about a soccer match. Yet despite how many complex factors contribute to what it feels like to be a new fan, it’s also one of the least original experiences in sports-watching. We’ve each had our own moment of beginning, filled with questions and unfamiliar experiences, wondering what it will take to “belong.” Everyone started somewhere, whether from childhood as a tenth-generation fan of a beloved hometown team, or from just last week after catching a particularly exciting match on TV. Each journey into fandom is both unique in the path it takes, and universal in its destination of unabashed love for a group of athletically gifted strangers. The fact that soccer offers each new fan that level of shared experience is something worth embracing.
Which is why in 2019, the new beginning I’m most excited about is my DC United season tickets, where at each match I’ll have two seats: one for me, and one for the friends, family members, and any other people I can convince to come try out being a new fan with me.