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The new Americans: MLS fans on the East Coast

Our latest camera comes to us from the USA and the MLS. Matthew Stith, a photographer from New Jersey, took photos in New York City and also followed Toronto FC during the MLS playoffs. We spoke to Matthew about US fan culture, the rise of the MLS and why he still supports Arsenal.

The new Americans: MLS fans on the East Coast

Our latest camera comes to us from the USA and the MLS. Matthew Stith, a photographer from New Jersey, took photos in New York City and also followed Toronto FC during the MLS playoffs. We spoke to Matthew about US fan culture, the rise of the MLS and why he still supports Arsenal.

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Who do we see in your photos?

The photos were taken in New York City and Toronto. Most people in the photos are who I hang out with every day in the city. My roommate is a massive Arsenal fan, and we go to the pub for almost every game. I followed Toronto FC during the playoffs. My college teammate, who now plays for Toronto FC, somehow got me the connections to shoot some games. He’s the goalkeeper in the photos.

Was there someone you took photos of who has an interesting personal story?

The guy with the #21 uniform on is probably one of the most passionate fans I’ve seen in North America. He is a leader of one of the fan groups for Toronto FC and gets access to the field at all the games. When Toronto FC score, it looks like he just won the lottery. When they concede it looks like he just got shot in the heart. He lives and breathes Toronto FC.

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What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with the photos?

In the bar I wanted to show that there are real fans in the USA. At the Barcelona bar, we watched El Clasico.  The bar was packed and every time Barcelona scored the bar went mad. Drinks thrown, people kissing, loud roars. New York City has a huge Hispanic population and Barcelona is probably the most supported team, apart from NYCFC. There’s a lot of football culture in New York City, and I wanted to showcase that. 

What is special and unique about US fan culture?

US fan culture is new and just starting to really formulate. It’s cool because it has become a melting pot of all the different cultures around the world. In Toronto, the fans are very English with their chants, while in New York the fans have more of a Hispanic flair. There’s a lot of passion in the fan culture here. Drums and flares are common and are at almost every MLS stadium in the country. For such a young league, it seems like people would die for their respective clubs, and I love that. I love seeing when MLS teams have their own chants, not just copied from Europe.

Because of the geography in the USA, it’s not uncommon to see a fan from another state support a team because they might not have a professional team in their area. I know fans from Buffalo who support the New York Red Bulls and go to games quite frequently, even though the distance between Buffalo and Harrison, New Jersey is 350 miles. There are a lot fewer professional teams in the USA for people to support.

Also, in the States, we have a knack for supporting the underdog. There are people who always support the lower rated team, for no reason. One week someone could be supporting DC United versus Red Bulls, but then the next week they are against DC United when they play Houston Dynamo.

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How is European football viewed compared to domestic US soccer?

Everyone knows that most major European leagues are better than the MLS. That should be expected though. The MLS has only been around since 1996. To put that into perspective, Liverpool Football Club has been a club for 104 years longer than MLS has existed. There are some fans more passionate about teams in Europe than the MLS. There are European football bars all over New York City and Toronto and they are always packed and filled with fans.

I’m more passionate about a European team than my home team. European football has been good for so long and the MLS is just starting to catch up. I grew up as an Arsenal fan, and that’s the only team I have enough energy to support. I used to go to MetroStars games when I was a lot younger, but when they became the Red Bulls I lost interest. 

However, that’s not to say the MLS is not a good league. It has come a long way. There are teams that play good football, who pass and move, and entertain the crowd. It’s great to see. There are some great young talents in American academies that are breaking into first teams every year. Good things take time, and it’s no different for MLS. I think in 10 to 15 years the MLS will be up there with the best.

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Why is football important for the US and Americans?

I think football is important because it’s a way to bring people together. I’m not trying to be cliché, but I met all my friends though football. All of my roommates are football players, everybody I hang out with is a football player, and my motivation for photography is to promote football. I think people are starting to catch on, as the US has more youth players than anywhere else in the world, maybe apart from China!

I am a devout follower of the game and there’s nothing that makes me happier than freshly cut grass on a misty Sunday morning. I love the passion, excitement, disappointment, and glory that the game has to offer.

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What role does football play in US society? Does it bring people together?

Right now, football is huge and growing. When I was growing up, football was never taken seriously, but now if you are a football player, it’s the coolest thing. Americans are passionate people. We are so passionate that we get made fun of around the world. So we have no choice but to be passionate about football. The more the game grows, the more fans will pop up all over the place. If there is one thing that Americans love, it’s camaraderie, and I think football is the easiest sport to make friends through. All the players are friends off the pitch. There’s so much respect and that’s something that Americans will love.

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What is the future for US football?

Christian Mate Pulisic

“Soccer” has had “breakthroughs” in the US before. What is different about the popularity of the game at the moment?

The way the MLS is set up, it is hard for it to have such a catastrophic demise like in the days of the NASL. There are smarter people in charge who are trying to make everything sustainable and keep the league running. I think the game is so popular at the moment because it’s such a melting pot of all cultures. It’s all Love. 

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