Being in a soccer supporters group is like being in a cult — only the food's much better and nobody's going to try and kill you in the end. Instead of nonsensical chanting there's directed spooky singing — spooky if you're an opposing goalie that is.
"To me, being a supporter is a completely different experience than being a regular fan," James Hromadka, one of the leaders of the Houston Dynamo supporters group the Texian Army, says. "A regular fan experience is much more passive. You go watch a game and cheer on the team, but a lot of the time you're just sitting there.
"You don't just cheer on the team when you're a supporter, you actually make a difference in the game as it's being played."
It'd be easy to dismiss this as the hyperbole of a believer. After all, every idiot who bangs on the glass at a hockey game and every dork who mindlessly thumps thundersticks together at an NBA game thinks he's making a difference. And there are more studies than ever showing that the often lauded "homefield advantage" is a bunch of bunk (with the exception of referee bias).
But this is soccer — and soccer is a little different, a lot more crazy. The sport that gave rise to hooliganism thrives on passion. In many ways, it's the heartbeat and rhythm of the game. Sports Illustrated just did a big feature on the frenzied support that Major League Soccer receives in the Pacific Northwest for a reason.
In soccer, you'll never convince the men who play the game that those most fanatical of fans don't make a difference.
"Our fans are a big part of what we do," says Brian Ching, the Dynamo who can remember the championship seasons of 2006 and 2007. "When Robertson is rocking, it brings more energy to everyone's game."
Some Dynamo players are even more specific. They tell Hromadka and other supporter group members that they can actually feel the difference in their legs. That's heady stuff to hear from the guys you're screaming on.
So Hromadka and the rest of the Texian Army meet underneath some trees near a parking lot before every Dynamo home game, indulge in some tailgating (told you the food was good) and march over to the stadium in mass. There are other Dynamo supporters groups that do something similar — El Batallon, La Bateria and Brickwall. This season, the Dynamo have been trying to get these groups to become one army rather than a bunch of separate battalions.
It's part of the buildup to the new Dynamo stadium, which will open sometime during the 2012 season. In the new stadium, there will be a special section built in the lower bowl especially designed to house the merged supporters group. Hromadka says that Dynamo officials have told him they're even toying with the idea of not having any seats in those sections (supporters groups don't believing in sitting during a game).
The Dynamo are offering special $250 season tickets to those sections until June 1. The goal is to get at least 300 supporters signed up (which requires submitting a $50 deposit) by Wednesday. The supporters will be recognized in a plaque at the new stadium, receive bus transportation to the Dallas road game this season and next, and get a special commemorative supporters scarf that will be personally given to them by either a Dynamo player or team president Chris Canetti.
You don't have to be a current member of a supporters group to sign up for the deal either. Anyone can sign up as an unaffiliated supporter and get the perks. The first of the scarves were handed out Saturday night as the Dynamo rallied to tie FC Dallas 2-2.
Hey, in soccer, supporters groups are treated with more than a little reverence. And why not?
These are men and women who are singing, chanting, waving flags and never letting their butts hit a seat all game long. Did I mention the singing?
"Most people have no problem standing the whole game," Hromadka says. "It's not hard to stand for 90 minutes. Some people take a while to get used to the singing, chanting and waving flags. A lot of times a first timer isn't quite sure what we're doing."
No worries. It wasn't that long ago that Hromadka never expected to be caught singing outside of his shower either. This 36-year-old financial planner wasn't exactly auditioning for American Idol.
"I'm a horrible singer," Hromadka laughs. "I never sing if I'm not at a soccer game."
Crazy In Love
Hromadka admits he often needs to watch a replay of a game he attended later as well — to see what he couldn't see while he focused on rooting with a fervency that few outside of soccer understand.
"I've missed many a goal because I've had my back turned to the field, leading a song," he says. "That's OK. It's part of it."
So why do Hromadka and others like him do it? What drives the fever?
A lot of it is the community that develops in a supporters group. "You've got all these people who probably wouldn't even glance at each other if they weren't in the supporters group together," Hromadka says. "From all walks of life. But because we're in this group, you almost become a family.
"There are people in the Texian Army that I'd do anything for. And I know they'd do anything for me."
Sometimes, the supporters even become family. Hromadka met his fiancee Melissa Pulido in the Dynamo supporters group. He proposed to her during a Dynamo game against the Colorado Rapids on June 26, 2010. Don't ever try to tell him that soccer doesn't mean something.
The groups tend to trend relatively young, with the bulk of the members ranging from the early 20s to late 30s. But the Texian Army is getting ready to celebrate the 50th birthday of one diehard (Andy Jackson) and you'll see others bringing their kids to watch the Dynamo in the rollicking revelry of the supporters group section.
There's just something to the pull of doing those carefully-constructed songs and chants together. When a prospective new member — and there's an open invitation for any fan to experience a game with a supporters group — comes over, the helloes come quick and easy. Not everyone comes back. To some, it's too much.
But if you get it, you get it.
There is a bar in Houston (Orange Sports Bar) that was basically started by a Dynamo fan who wanted a place where fans could watch Dynamo games. Now, that's where the Texian Army goes after every game.
Canetti, the fresh-faced team prez who fits in with the trend of younger sports executives in the top leadership role, has taken trips to Europe to see how different franchises place rabid supporters groups in their stadiums. He's been encouraged by how the Dynamos various groups have come together in several games this season.
"They've done a really good job," he says. "It's not only made the atmosphere in those sections better, it's raised the atmosphere in the entire stadium. And that's what we're hoping for. You can just see it bring up the energy level in the entire stadium."
You never have to worry about energy with a fan like Hromadka. He just wants to know where the supporters section will be at the new Dynamo stadium. He's heard one of the end zones is a strong possibility and he's rooting hard for that to become reality.
"It'd be a great spot to get on the opposing goalies," Hromadka says.
He'll be getting a few chants ready.