The American Outlaws have pretty much dominated all aspects of US Soccer support over the last few Word Cup cycles, but not without controversy. In an excellent piece by Noah Davis in March of last year, the organization was put under the microscope for its handling of racism and sexual assault, leading many around the country wary of buying their next AO ticket and looking for alternative groups.
One such group which has been gaining a bit of steam of late are the Sammers. The name, group leader Monty Rodgriguez, tells me is a bit of "an unintentional homage [to Sam's Army]. So many of us were in Sam's Army and it was part of what brought us to US soccer's doorstep that it seems kind of natural."
"[The idea to start a group] had come up as a concept before, several times, among a group of us, including Bill Fetty (WI), Travis Bell (TX), Rich Moore (TX), Jon Strauss (MA), Chris Keem (ex-pat, Canada) and myself," Monty tells me. These like-minded friends from across the country had decided that AO simply wasn't their scene and decided to create something new.
"We began in earnest during this past Summer's Gold Cup. We had a number of false starts through 2014 and began taking memberships towards the [end of the year]" Monty explained. "The first big ‘field experiment' so to speak was in Dallas for the US match against Honduras. We had an amazing time down there with folks from the Dallas Beer Guardians and their other supporters groups. It was a return to the days of singing for 90 and we loved every second of it."
But don't let the name fool you. Sammers does not want to be viewed as Sam's Army 2.0 and are looking to forge an identity all their own.
With just under 200 members, Sammers is nowhere near the behemoth that the American Outlaws are, but, when talking with them, you get the sense that they don't necessary want to be.
"There's no glossing over the fact that we cater to a group of fans that, for whatever reason, choose us over the much larger national brand" Monty explained, and one of those reasons seems to be the Sammers' approach. "Our crowd has been around the block a few times and they're much more likely to sit by the keg than do stands off it," and perhaps this best highlights the biggest differences between the groups.
Over the years, the American Outlaws have garnered a reputation for being overly fratty. For Sammers, there certainly seems to be an emphasis on distancing themselves from this kind of support. "We still have gatherings the night before games in the host cities, but they tend to be less energized by Red Bull and pounding pop music than by old and new friends coming together to meet and just hang out"
But partying style is not the only way in which Sammers wants to distinguish itself from AO. "I think the other [way] we're attempting to differentiate [ourselves from AO] is that we will have accountability in our group" Monty explained.
The American Outlaws have built up a reputation over the years for some less than savory things, as outlined in the Noah Davis piece linked above. It has been argued that many of these problems stem from how AO is organized. AO's philosophy of giving control to the chapters, which has allowed them to grow so quickly, arguably makes the group incapable of maintaining a central brand. Yes, the organization has a code of conduct, but given the level of autonomy chapters are given, enforcing it proves difficult, allowing a few bad chapters to reflect poorly on the organization as a whole.
This complex dilemma between autonomy and control is one that is not lost on Sammers and it's one the organization approached rather carefully. "The majority of the time spent between September of 2013 and October 2014 was spent on conversations about this very thing," Monty explained. "We have opted to go the route of inclusion...as opposed to top-down control."
Monty went on to explain a chapter system (called Brigades in Sammers terms) which was not all that dissimilar to AO. In fact, in many ways, setting up a Sammers Brigade is easier than setting up an AO chapter. For one, there is no minimum threshold of membership to start a brigade as there is with AO. "To start a Brigade under the current format, you simply email firstname.lastname@example.org and say you have created a Facebook, Twitter, have joined as a paid member, and a link to your home bar/restaurant."
But given a structure so similar to that of AO which has been blamed for many of that groups problems, how will Sammers guard against similar pitfalls?
"This is where the constant communication and flow of information provided through social media and simply being more aggressive about staying in contact with our Brigades is key" Monty explained. "A major part of that process that I am very proud of, are our member calls that usually occur in close proximity to upcoming matches."
Of course, with only 200 members, keeping everyone connected is a lot easier than it is for AO, making it much more likely that anyone in the wrong can be held to the level of accountability which Monty strives for, however, what happens as their membership roster continue to grow? For Monty, the answer, again, is communication. "We can always get better at this and we will. We want ‘national' to be accountable to the Brigades and we feel we have the framework to insure that happens"
For all the flak that AO has taken of late, AO remains a perfect organization for a number of soccer fans in this country, which certainly explains their growth. But it's not for everyone. While it is unclear just how successful Sammers will become over the coming years, their existence and different way of doing things is certainly refreshing and speaks to the diversity of our growing soccer culture.