Much is made of the sense of community, the brotherhood, the sisterhood, the overwhelming sense of family that is engendered by fandom, whatever the sport may be. Supporting your team, through thick and thin, both near and far, being part of a like-minded collective is something that most of us cherish, and for those of us that are fortunate to be a part of such a tribe, there is very little to compete with it in terms of the pride it inspires, the passion it stirs and the enjoyment it gives us.
On Friday, May 22, I was lucky enough to gatecrash such a gathering, as a busload of hardy Chicago Fire fans assembled in the early hours of the morning for the not-so-local derby against Midwest rivals Columbus Crew SC. Just a simple matter of a 12-hour round trip to support their idols, their heroes, their team.
A motley crew of all ages, backgrounds and dispositions came together to show their love for their team in the best way they knew how, bedecked in red, white and blue and with optimistic thoughts of putting one over their closest foes. There were bartenders and students on board. Paramedics, a professor of Religious Studies and even the President of NASL club Indy Eleven, Peter Wilt, of course better known to Fire fans as the club’s first President and GM, joined us in Indianapolis.
“This is family, this is just like a family vacation for me at this point,” Patrick Stanton, a former Chairman of Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association for the Fire, revealed. “I spend more time with some of these guys than I do with some of my brothers, my aunts and uncles. Those are good friends.”
“When we were in San Jose (for the third game of the 2015 season, a 2-1 loss) our flight home got cancelled, so we had to find a new way home,” the veteran of 63 away trips with the Fire, added. “Book different flights, out of different airports, out of different cities, fly through four time zones in one day just to get home and try to make it to work two days late. But when you can do this and have a beer and relax and enjoy the company of your fellow Fire fan, that’s nothing less than kinship, that’s friendship, that’s family.”
That sense of family and togetherness is a common theme as I continue my conversations with fellow supporters as we near Columbus, with spirits high despite the early morning start and the long journey down.
“It’s one thing to go to games at home, because that’s where all the other Fire fans go, but going on an away trip is almost a rite of passage, in a way,” Vadim Furmanov, a second-year Season Ticket Holder enjoying his very first away trip, explained. “That’s when you get really committed as a Fire fan, because you’re going to support your team in a completely different city, especially if it’s Columbus.”
“The best part is getting to know each other, some of my closest friends now I’ve met traveling to games,” Merrie Bunt, a fan since 2008 and Director of Finances with Section 8, acknowledged. “There’s been a fair share of great wins, come-from-behind wins and then the disappointing losses and draws, but the camaraderie of the travel is the best part.”
While I have tasted away bus trips back home in Ireland, in England and even jumped on a Seattle Sounders supporters’ bus to Vancouver during my time living in Tacoma, Wash., this was my first time enjoying the company of Fire fans on what is a familiar journey for many of them. It did not disappoint.
Freddy Coba, who has been a fan since his grandfather took him to his first game in 1998 and has been a Season Ticket Holder since 2008, echoed Stanton’s sentiments, saying, “Away trips are where you make all your friends. Most of the guys I’ve met on an away trip, that’s where you make most of your friendships, and you know when you’re on an away trip that the people on it are real fans.”
This was his 25th away trip with the Fire.
Arriving in Columbus almost four hours before the 8 p.m. local time kickoff, current Section 8 Chairman Dan Martin highlighted a previous visit to MAPFRE Stadium as one of his favorites in over 30 trips since his first away day in Toronto in 2007.
“The game I always come back to is back in 2009 in Columbus where Gonzalo Segares tied it at 2-2 in [the 88th minute] and you knew a draw that night was a big moment for everyone that was there,” Martin recalled.
Greeted by local stewards and prompted to our corner of the empty stadium parking lot, an impromptu kick-around broke out as some fans hung around chatting while other, perhaps more well-traveled folk, ventured downtown to kill the hours before match time.
When it was finally time to enter the recently renamed venue -- appropriated as 'MAPFire Stadium' by the visiting supporters -- fans gathered their belongings, and made the short procession into the stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the U.S., where the atmosphere was building.
Nestled in the southeast corner of the stadium, directly opposite the famed Nordecke where Crew SC's most ardent and vocal fans reside, the Fire faithful – numbering at least 70 and swelled by those who traveled on their own steam – gathered in expectant and optimistic mood.
With typically strong representation from Sector Latino and backed by a solitary snare drum, the crowd were in full voice throughout, getting behind their team for the entire 90 minutes, rarely pausing for breath. One moment in particular stood out for me. After Columbus' second goal went in, and just as the traveling fans did when Sporting Kansas City went 1-0 up at home three weeks before, the Fire fans united in song, amped up the decibel level another notch or two and let their team know that they remained fully behind them, despite now trailing 2-0.
That injection of energy, passion and support from the terraces must have been heard on the field. Within three minutes, David Accam had pulled one back and reignited the Fire's hopes of getting something from the game.
As the team pushed forward in search of an equalizer, the noise levels continued to rise; even as substitute Quincy Amarikwa struck a post in front of the Fire fans with just minutes remaining, both players and fans refused to give in.
And, just as in 2009 on this very ground, the Men in Red kept plugging away and eventually scored the equalizer their efforts richly deserved. Substitute Jason Johnson headed home his first goal for the club deep into injury time, prompting wild celebrations among the Fire supporters.
“Pandemonium,” was how Stanton described the scenes after Johnson’s dramatic late strike. “It was just complete ... not disbelief, as we’ve had some trouble scoring this year, but it was validating for the effort the team had been putting in on the field and for the supporters in the stands. And it was great to come away with a point after [Columbus] had been up 2-0.”
As away trips go, they don’t get much better than denying your closest rivals (geographically, at least) victory in their own backyard, and needless to say the Fire fans relished every moment of their boisterous walk back to the bus.
“It was joyous for like 15 minutes and then sleepy for the next six hours, pretty much,” Stanton added, noting that the bus didn’t arrive back in Chicago until 4 a.m. “It had been a long day for most of us on the bus. There were a few people that kept it going with some singing and drinking, but nothing over-exuberant. We all had pretty much spent ourselves inside the ground.”
If you are interested in taking the Section 8 supporters’ bus to future away games in Columbus and Toronto, please visit www.s8c.org.
Shane Murray covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com.