When I was living on the west side of Chicago, about a mile from my apartment, the closest place that showed soccer games was a Spurs bar. And now that I’m on the north side, about a mile and a half from my apartment, the closest place that shows soccer games is a Spurs bar. I have been told the two groups that assemble each weekend know each other, that they were once a united Pangea of people who like the same soccer club, but I don’t know, some years back Scott stiffed some folks on an enamel pin order or whatever, and now they watch Spurs separately.
I’ve been an interloper in these spaces. I went to the west side joint, where the crew was shambolic and casual, to watch La Liga games in the back and show up to the north side one, home of what you might credibly call a peña, when there’s a big EPL tilt. At both these places there has been, all around me, as I sip my beer and ask a stranger how they feel about Kyle Walker-Peters, a community happening: debates about lineup choices, weekend plans and work gripes disclosed, a tupperware container full of lemon bars making the rounds. At kickoff things get quiet, then very loud. Whiskey shots are purchased en masse after each goal.
Aspects of the hangout can get embarrassing. American soccer fans have spent the past two decades trying to figure out how to function in public and have seemingly decided, in defeat or joyful embrace of the inane, to slap some Union Jack bunting on their personalities and pretend to have grown up in Bexley. (I wonder if Chinese NBA fans think they should act like Clipper Darrell.) There’s a slight Ren Faire vibe at these things, strained Anglicisms flying around, chests puffing out and songs going up—stop saying “Yid Army,” guys—a forced sense of togetherness. Some folks are trying a little too hard to make a capital “C” Culture happen, as if drinking in the morning among a largely pleasant group isn’t enough of one. There is an announcement at halftime about official supporters’ club shirts. $20. Orders are closing soon.
In the end these are people leaving their homes at 7 a.m. to share something with others, and that’s not so bad. Being around them is a temporary cure for disaffection, because almost everybody in the building is hoping in unison. It is nice to be around people who care about anything at all as much as they do, to feel the room fill with anxious silence in the midst of an important match, a few isolated plaintive instructions shouted by nervous sorts at men 4,000 miles and a television screen away, dying in the heavy and halting breaths of tattooed parents, casual dirtbags, advertising bros, the hungover, folks who’ve got money at stake and ones with afternoon commitments. The immediacy of it is powerful, like the bar is at the end of a long cliff, and the doors are locked, and nobody wants to leave anyway.
These places obviously don’t exist only to serve Spurs fans. I’ve seen Bayern Munich supporters bellowing in terrifying German as they ran up the score against some poor lower table Bundesliga side, a solitary guy in a Villarreal shirt in a corner with his fingers over his face. Last month, I watched the USA-Jamaica match and there was a gaggle of Peruvians who were positively losing their minds as their national team trounced Chile on the way to the Copa America final. The US game, comparatively, wasn’t very good and didn’t stir much enthusiasm in those of us who showed up to see it. The match got weather delayed partway through the first half and I proceeded to get ripped with a friend and his coworkers. We weren’t paying a lot of attention by the time the US went up 2-0 in the 52nd minute.
But it was a fine time, it was something to do. When you strip away the peculiar trappings of American soccer fandom, the affectation and unctuous cultishness of it, you find people killing time together, trying to feel something greater than they might by themselves, something inside them surging before they spill out into the street two hours later and the slow rhythms of daily life resume, walking away, inhaling off a one-hitter, waving soundlessly to what they might not even call friends, whom they will see again next week. Same place, same time. Whiskey shots after every goal, banana nut muffins in rotation. Maybe you’re not a joiner, but you see why they make a habit of this. It’s an experience that anchors you and lifts you up at the same time.