There are two groups of soccer “types” everyone is familiar with. There's the “soccer mom,” scooting across town in her minivan with her 2.5 children, and the “hooligan,” a soccer fan whose sole purpose in life is to beat the living shit out of anyone who doesn't support his favorite team. There is also a third type, the “ultra,” and Los Angeles now has its fair share of them.
Ultras, also known as supporter groups, are bands of diehard soccer fans who root for a particular team. They've existed in the U.S. since Major League Soccer had its first kickoff in 1996, taking inspiration from their European counterparts. They're the fans you'll find in the same section in every game chanting, singing, cheering and jeering along to the action on the field while drumming, tossing streamers and, on occasion, setting off a flare or two. A growing number of them in Europe have deep political affiliations, but so far that hasn't been the case in the U.S.
L.A. is currently the only city in the country hosting two MLS teams — the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA, who share the Home Depot Center stadium in Carson and play each other this Saturday. The former was established in 1995 and is one of the league's first teams, while the latter was founded in 2004 and is the sister team to Mexico's Club Deportivo Guadalajara, aka Chivas de Guadalajara.
Each team recognizes three groups per team as official supporters: the Galaxians, Angel City Brigade and the L.A. Riot Squad on the Galaxy side; and Legion 1908, Union Ultras and Black Army 1850 for Chivas USA.
The Galaxians have supported the Galaxy since day one. The group boasted a large number of members up until a few years ago, when the team moved from the Rose Bowl to the Home Depot Center in 2003. It also butted heads recently with former Galaxy player Alexi Lalas, who served as the Galaxy's general manager from 2006 to 2008.
“We had 100 percent support from owner Doug Hamilton,” says Galaxian representative Carlisa Perdomo, “but, unfortunately, he passed away. Then Alexi Lalas came in and that changed it all for us because he had his own vision.” Perdomo and other supporters have spent the past few years rebuilding the Galaxians to its former glory.
The L.A. Riot Squad was born in 2001 after former goalkeeper Kevin Hartmann offered to buy a group of fans a keg if they put together a support group. Hartmann got his support group, the group got its keg and LARS has been at every home game with lots of booze ever since.
“The Riot Squad name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old L.A. riots,” explained Isaac Menchaca of LARS. “It's not to be taken too seriously, but I guess some people do.” LARS considers itself an “anti-supporter” group that focuses on having a good time and pressuring visiting teams to get their heads out of the game.
“Occasionally we do attract the wrong element of people,” he added. “They think that, because we have the gas mask logo and Riot Squad in our name, that we're into the whole hooligan scene, but that's not really something that we're about. We're more into drinking, watching the game and being with friends.”
The group's party vibe is also reflected in its motto, Veni, Imbibi, Vici, which means “I came, I drank, I conquered.”
The Angel City Brigade (ACB) is the newest group for the Galaxy, founded in the off-season in 2007 by former members of LARS. “We all have a lot of respect for the Riot Squad,” says Brian Lynch of the ACB, “but the cultures are relatively different. They're a little more 'Let's have a party and watch the game' and I think we're a little more of an active supporter style [group].”
The ACB wants to promote soccer throughout the city as well as promote a sense of civic pride through the sport via charity drives, fundraisers and other events. Ideally, the group would like to partner with a nonprofit in order to become involved with more charities and with the community. The members also hope to sponsor an amateur soccer team in the near future. “I think, in the next year or so, you're going to see more of those initiatives coming forward,” Lynch says.
Up next: Chivas fans
Legion 1908's loyalty to Chivas USA stems from its loyalty to the team's parent club, C.D. Guadalajara, where it's the official support group.
The Union Ultras were originally known as Los San Patricios before the name changed in 2007. They, like Legion 1908, take their name from C.D. Guadalajara: the team originally was known as Club de Futbol Union and changed its name in 1908.
“Chivas is my religion,” says Julio Ramos of the Union Ultras, who supports both Chivas USA and C.D. Guadalajara. “My dad actually worked for [Guadalajara] for almost 20 years. I grew up with those colors.” He admits that not every Union Ultras member is as passionate for Guadalajara as he is, but everyone is very passionate about Chivas USA.
Both Legion and the Union Ultras wear the red and white colors of the team while the Black Army 1850 (named after the year California and Los Angeles were incorporated into the U.S.) opts for all black. The Army was founded in 2010 by former members of the Union Ultras who disagreed with the views of the group. Many of the disagreements stem from recognizing Chivas USA as a separate, independent brand from its Mexican counterpart.
Despite the split, there's a line of respect between the Union Ultras and the Black Army. They both see Chivas USA as a working-class team composed of regular guys, as opposed to the Galaxy and its roster of big-name superstars like David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.
“For me, Chivas USA represent what L.A. really is,” Ramos says. “We have people from all over the world on our team, people who come to live the American dream, and that's what L.A. is based on: immigrants like us who come to live the American dream.”
Both Angel Mendoza of the Black Army and Ramos of the Union Ultras point out the personal relationship the support groups have with the organization. General manager Joe Donome recently made a personal appearance at a backpack drive hosted by the Black Army, while Ramos and the Ultras stay in touch with team co-owner Antonio Cue.
“They see us as part of the club,” Ramos says, “not just a supporter group.”
“Most of the Black Army members don't even like C.D. Guadalajara,” Mendoza says. “The reason we root for Chivas USA is because [we have] a connection with the players and the front office. The organization is very accessible.”
The support groups go toe-to-toe every year when Chivas USA plays the Galaxy. But the rivalry between the teams today is nothing like what it was just a few years ago.
“Those games used to get really heated,” says Menchaca of Galaxy supporters LARS, “especially when [Chivas USA] first came into the league. We built this house, we established this team, we established this market and then, all of a sudden, these guys come in and say, 'Hey, we want to take over.' Not to mention that they came in with a kind of arrogant attitude.”
The animosity between support groups peaked in 2007, when verbal jabs turned into physical ones. “A number of our guys had their scarves yanked off their neck,” says Menchaca. “They were kicked and pushed to the ground. We saw some bottles fly.”
Much of the animosity between supporter groups has been quelled over the years thanks to efforts by the groups themselves. Nowadays, Chivas' Union Ultras and the Galaxy's ACB play a friendly match against each other before the two MLS teams face off. “That was a conscious decision by us and them,” says Lynch of Galaxy supporters ACB, “because when Chivas first came into the league and the Legion who support Chivas Guadalajara came, there were some incidents.”
Mendoza of the Chivas-supporting Black Army recalls an incident from years ago when members of the Galaxy-supporting Riot Squad held up a banner featuring the lowrider character (a simple sketch drawing of a Latino stereotype — see an example here), with Union Ultras written on it, which was seen as a racist jab by some in attendance. Even today, “It turns into a racial thing,” he says, “even if you don't want it to.”
Some Galaxy supporters even mentioned a number of questionable chants by Galaxy-supporting Riot Squad, which they didn't want to repeat. The Riot Squad maintains a bit of a bad reputation among fellow Galaxy supporters, though most of it is water under the bridge. “A lot of people that are there right now in Riot Squad and even in the Galaxians don't know what happened,” says Perdomo of the Galaxians, “so we just keep it as peaceful as we can.”
“At the end of the day, we're all fans of the same team,” says Menchaca of the Riot Squad, “and that's what we're there for.”
Galaxy fans have moved on to other rivalries, with teams such as Real Salt Lake, the Seattle Sounders and the San Jose Earthquakes. Chivas supporters, on the other hand, still maintain their rivalry against the Galaxy.
“We're going to be the first supporter group that comes out and says how much they hate the other team,” says Ramos. “We have scarves that say anti-Galaxy, we have shirts that say anti-Galaxy, so we're officially the anti-Galaxy supporter group of the MLS.”