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As part of this year's season-ticket holder package for the Colorado Rapids, fans were offered the choice of attending a "friendly" against either Mexico's first-division Tigres in July or the Everton Football Club out of England in August. Since any footie worth his weight in soccer scarves knows that Everton — a solid squad from the English Premier League, where many feel the best soccer in the world is played — is the far superior team, most Rapids fans chose to attend that match.
So on this windy Wednesday evening in early July, only the diehard supporters — yes, diehard Rapids supporters — are in the parking lot of Dick's Sporting Goods Park, drinking keg beer out of red plastic cups. Never mind that it's a work night. Never mind that this game against the Tigres has absolutely no importance in the Major League Soccer standings, or that the second-string squad will be playing while the starters rest.
Members of three occasionally clashing Rapids supporters groups — the Centennial Firm, Class VI and the newly-minted North Corner Council (NCC) — united both by their love of the Rapids and, more recently, their frustration with the front office, are here tonight. As they always are.
Soccer supporters groups are nearly as old as the game itself, with allegiances to squads passed down from generation to generation in the same way most Americans learn to embrace their favorite baseball or football team. Fans eat, sleep and breathe their team, sometimes with violent results. Incidents of hooliganism surrounding the game date back to the middle ages, and to this day firms, as they are known in soccer circles, will still meet up before, during or after a game with the sole purpose of beating the holy hell out of each other. For years, Manchester United's supporters group, the Red Army, was banned from attending away games due to the havoc it tended to create.
While some talk smack to those heading into the game early, others try to kick the keg, chugging more foam than they'd like. But in the end, they don't have the numbers, and the barrel is packed back into the trunk of a car. Then the group of diehards marches into the park as the waning notes of the Mexican national anthem dissipate into the Commerce City night.
For these soccer lovers, it's not about the quality of play on the pitch. If it were, they would have left a long time ago.
Since joining the MLS as one of the ten original teams in 1996, the Colorado Rapids has never won a championship; a second-place finish in 1997 is its most notable achievement. It's a perennial table team, typically getting into the playoffs (though in the MLS, ten of the now fourteen squads make the playoffs) but never bringing home the prize.
Still, it does fairly well when it comes to attendance, packing an average of 14,171 fans per game into the new, 18,000-seat stadium for each of the eighteen home league games. (Individual tickets average $18 a pop, with season packages available for $363.)
But despite last year's move to Dick's — the beautiful, soccer-specific complex built by Rapids owner Stan Kroenke — and despite the fact that the team is still in the running this year, last season's playoff miss, frustration with coach Fernando Clavijo and a history of underachieving have created an atmosphere of low expectations. So many Rapids diehards, an eclectic mass numbering anywhere from fifty to three hundred people on any given day, seek out their own fun.
Those who align themselves with one of the Rapids supporters groups — the C-Firm, the oldest, most established supporters group; Class VI, the more restrained group with the better seats; and the upstart NCC, which is perhaps the most fanatical — are here to talk proper football, to bang on drums, throw confetti and chant irreverent cheers while standing on their feet for the entire game. They're here to create that frenzied soccer environment that they've either seen on television or experienced first-hand at matches across the pond. They're here for the beautiful game, the way the beautiful game was meant to be enjoyed.
It's behavior that is both encouraged and discouraged by the Rapids and by Major League Soccer, which allows certain soccer-style displays of fanaticism, but has been careful not to let them get out of hand.
But Rapids fanatics think the team has clamped down too hard on behavior in section 100 — the supporters' section — and say that doesn't make sense, since the Rapids and soccer itself need all the love they can get in a country where other major sports are far more popular.
"It's getting to the point where it's hard for me to have any fun in there anymore," says Pablo Aguayo, the de facto head of the NCC supporters group. "I'm nervous to wave a flag or throw a streamer. It's like security there has their eye on us the entire time."