The Rise of the American Outlaws
By Tom Blanton
Mariachi music drifted through the parking lot of University of Phoenix Stadium April 2. It was a sea of green, which wasn’t unusual given that night’s event. Anytime Mexico’s national soccer team plays a match in an American city close to the country’s southern border, El Tri fans flock to the host venue in droves to cheer on their team. But this was different. Mexico and the United States were going head-to-head in one of the fiercest and bitter rivalries in international soccer. It was a friendly, yes, but a friendly just 71 days before the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup.
Soccer has never known the popularity in America that it has in Mexico. Home matches at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, which holds up to 105,000 fans, are often filled near or to capacity. In contrast, U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) home matches, which are hosted in various large cities throughout the country, drew an average attendance of only 34,000 between 2007 and 2012.
Sixty thousand were in attendance for the April 2 friendly, but the Mexican loyal severely outnumbered the USMNT supporters. Those brave enough to wear red, white and blue were heckled as they wandered in small groups through the camaraderie of the Mexicanos, whose presence could be felt in every direction. There was little trace of community among the American fans. It looked as though it was going to be another completely hostile environment for the USMNT in their home country. Then, in the distance toward the stadium’s southern edge, The Stars and Stripes rose in force and began to wave.
I believe that…
I believe that…
I believe that we…
I believe that we…
I believe that we will win
I believe that we will win
I believe that we will win
I believe that we will win
Following the familiar call-and-response to Lawn B, one look around the hedges that separated the field from the rest of the parking lot made it clear Clint Dempsey and the Yanks would not be standing completely alone that night. Amid beers and barbecue, an intimate cluster of nearly 1,000 bandana-clad American soccer enthusiasts seemed determined to not let their presence go unnoticed. If the boisterous aura of die-hard fandom radiating from the group left any doubt, a quick glance at the communal scarves and banners assured any passerby that it was, indeed, the American Outlaws (AO).
It only got louder as the trashcans began to overflow with empty cans and bottles. The AO barbecue began a couple of hours before the match, with hundreds of hot dogs moving from the grill to the hungry bellies of hundreds of fans. On that field, isolated from the dominantly green presence surrounding the stadium, was the heart and soul of the USMNT — a group of sporting rogues who held the “world’s sport” in higher regard than “America’s pastimes.”
Since the unofficial supporters’ group formed in 2007 in Lincoln, Neb., its presence has been witnessed at almost every home and away match. The group has since become known for enthusiastically chanting and waving the Star-Spangled Banner behind one of the goals throughout each 90-minute fixture. Recognized by the mainstream media, ESPN commentators dubbed the Outlaws "a raucous group of U.S. supporters.”
Korey Donahoo, a highway design engineer from Lincoln, Neb., is president and co-founder of AO. He watched his first USMNT match when he was 12 during the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted by the U.S. During the 2002 World Cup, the USMNT’s upset victory over Portugal in the group stage inspired Donahoo to devote himself to his country’s team and become a loyal fan.
“I haven’t missed a match since, whether in attendance or watching on TV,” Donahoo said over the phone.
Attending any matches within close proximity to Lincoln between 2002 and 2007, the AO president became frustrated by the lack of unity among USMNT supporters.
“Some games had stuff set up before the games, and some didn’t,” he said. “We wanted to do something consistently for every game.”
In the summer of 2007, Donahoo and AO co-founder Justin Brunken filled a bus with 50 likeminded soccer fans from Lincoln and made the drive to Chicago for America’s friendly against Brazil. Those on the bus became the first members of the soon to be supporters’ group, if only honorary in title.
The co-founders agreed it all made sense after that.
“If there was this troop of people in Lincoln [willing to bus to Chicago], you could fill a bus from anywhere,” Brunken said about spawning the idea that became the Outlaws.
“That was when we decided to put together the chapter structure and put together pregame events for every game, and that’s kind of been the way we’ve done it ever since,” Donahoo said.
Under that system, AO has gone from 50 members to over 18,000 in its seven-year existence.
“It took awhile to get our first chapter other than Lincoln,” Brunken said. “Kansas City was that, and Dallas shortly after.”
“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been really rewarding,” Donahoo said about the rapid growth in members. “There were people everywhere across the U.S. who wanted something like this to be done and we just kind of took it on . . . people were just waiting for it in a lot of ways.”
It wasn’t until 2009, however, that Donahoo believes AO really grabbed the public’s attention.
“We had bigger and bigger parties every game, and people started seeing that we were going to be there every game,” he said.
As at the recent Phoenix friendly against Mexico, the Outlaws’ presence has become one that is expected and difficult to miss by players and other fans.
“It’s gotten much louder since we started and there’s more energy,” Brunken said.
However, as an unofficial supporters’ group, AO’s relationship with the USMNT only goes so far.
“The players all know who we are, but they don’t really have the option of dealing with us directly as much as you’d think,” Donahoo said. “We do a lot more with ex-players.”
The two co-founders have had to work hard to achieve the level of recognition the Outlaws now have. Each spends up to 30 hours a week doing AO related work, which can involve communicating with chapter presidents, organizing match tickets and planning pre-match events for members.
“There are five to six of us working [from Lincoln] for AO on the national level,” Donahoo said. “We have a really good team of people.”
While the AO headquarters is located in Lincoln, there are over 125 chapters in cities throughout the country. Many of those chapters are in America’s larger cities, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix, but smaller towns have also banded together and taken up the country’s colors by joining the supporters’ group.
To ensure a city’s commitment to the AO mission, which the group’s website states is “uniting and strengthening the U.S. fan base,” Donahoo and Brunken saw it necessary to enact a list of criteria for aspiring chapters to fulfill before becoming officially recognized. The requirements state that a chapter must:
· Have a minimum of 25 paid American Outlaw members
· Have a “home base” bar, where fans can expect to meet to watch each game
· Host a viewing party at said bar for every game
· Complete the AO Chapter “registration” and by-laws
· Inform national AO of new members as they sign up
It costs $25 to become an AO member. According to Donahoo, the money is returned to new members in the form of an Outlaw U.S. Soccer Flag Bandana and an Official American Outlaw Supporters T-Shirt, both of which have become symbols of the supporters’ group. Five dollars of each joining fee is also given to the member’s local chapter.
Members also get discounts on tickets to the supporter’s section at each USMNT match, flight discounts to matches from United Airlines and discounts on soccer merchandise from multiple online retailers.
Northern Arizona University student Josh Szyman attempted to form a chapter in Flagstaff, Ariz., this year but abandoned the endeavor after finding it difficult to acquire 25 paying members.
“It’s been hard to spread the word and get our name out there, but I feel like the World Cup this summer will bring a lot of people in and help us grow,” Szyman said.
However, smaller towns than Flagstaff have had little trouble filling the criteria. Orcutt, Calif., one of the smallest chapter towns, has a population of only 35,000.
Despite such colossal differences in populations between aspiring chapter towns, Brunken believes in the 25-member rule.
“If you have 25 paying members in an area, that’s probably enough to be able to stay consistent and put stuff together,” Brunken said about the minimum member requirement.
For Donahoo and Brunken, being co-founders of the now well-established supporters’ group isn’t without its perks.
“You have an instant family when you see [other members], and I love that part of it,” Donahoo said. “Then I get to say ‘I was one of the founders,’ which is a petty, humble brag, but it’s fun. It’s a perk.”
The co-founders’ perks don’t always translate to special benefits and privileges, however. Brunken was not able to get tickets to all three USMNT group stage matches at the World Cup this summer, while other members were.
“That’s how it goes,” Brunken said. “We’re still just members when it comes down to it.”
The U.S. was allotted more than 125,000 tickets to this summer’s World Cup, which is the most to any country aside from the host.
Staying true to the group’s mission to unify USMNT supporters, Donahoo and Brunken arranged an AO travel package to this year’s World Cup.
A similar trip was offered to members for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but on a much smaller scale. Only 50 members attended all three matches, but it was enough to inspire the co-founders.
“We proved ourselves in South Africa,” Donahoo said. “We proved that we could do a trip where U.S. fans can go and have a great time.”
Once the tournament was over, Donahoo and Brunken decided to think bigger for the 2014 follow up. Wanting as many members as possible to be able to attend, they used their experiences travelling to and around South Africa with AO to learn how to better organize this year’s edition. In doing so, they decided to charter two planes.
“Having a plane from the U.S. to wherever we want would be a huge way of making it easier on people,” Donahoo said. “People seemed to love the idea because [the package] sold out in under an hour.”
Over 500 members will be flying to Brazil with the AO package, which also offers pre-game events before the three USMNT group stage matches and communal hotel accommodations to keep the AO family together.
“I’ll feel a lot better when we’ve got everything squared away,” Donahoo said about the summer preparations. “But we’re on the right track.”
The AO website assures that its members pledge to always be loud, stand, sing and cheer America on, whether in attendance or watching from designated chapter bars. This summer, fans watching the USMNT matches from the States need only to wait until the camera pans to behind one of the goals to confirm the Outlaws have come to embody what Donahoo and Brunken envisioned seven years ago: a unified and dedicated group of loud and passionate supporters.
“It’s humbling, and it’s so much fun,” Brunken said. “We didn’t know how big it was going to be, but we never dreamed it would grow into what it has.”