World Cup Fever: Meet the American Outlaws

Leading the charge on a new kind of American Football.

Andy Gustafson, a travel agent from Tampa, is in Saint-Étienne, a beautiful riverside city in the eastern part of France. But Andy is not enjoying a tour of the historical metalworking shops or the 12th century ruins of the Château de Rochetaillée. In fact, Andy is padlocked inside of a cage with 40 other Americans and surrounded by roughly 35,000 angry and screaming Turks, some of whom are scaling the fences with violent intentions.

It’s the first round of the 2003 Confederations Cup – essentially a scaled-down version of the World Cup – and Demarcus Beasley of the US soccer team has just scored the opening goal against Turkey. France is home to a large number of Turkish immigrants who were all very excited to see their team compete in the Cup, and who are currently not pleased about the Americans spoiling their fun. How does Andy describe the harrowing madness occurring all around him?

“It was kind of a tense situation.”

He’s not only nonplussed because he’s got balls of steel (which he does), but also because this is a drop in the bucket of international soccer through an American’s eyes. Turkey went on to win the match 2-1, which was unfortunate for the US team but fortunate for the safety of the US fans, although they still had to be held in their confinements until an hour after the match was finished. At least they made it out of there alive.

When Andy phoned to tell me about his experience, it was Super Bowl week in New York City. As Midtown Manhattan teamed with gridiron fans, upstairs at Jack Dempsey’s – a non-descript Irish pub – fans of a different kind of football were gathering to watch their teams compete. They weren’t in Bronco orange and Seahawk green though. In fact, they were decked out in outrageous combinations of red, white, and blue – scarves, hats, jerseys, and bandanas draped Jesse James-style across their faces.

The rowdy crowd had convened to watch the USMNT take on South Korea in a generally meaningless game, but you wouldn’t have guess it by the knot of enthusiastically drinking and singing American Outlaws – the foremost organization for US Soccer fans – that have materialized in the middle of Super Bowl-ooza.

(Photographed for Maxim by Tim Soter)

But despite their fervor, these aren’t hooligans looking for any excuse to brawl. “Our mission is to unite,” says Justin Brunken, a marketing manager from Lincoln, Nebraska, who founded the Outlaws in 2007 with longtime friend KoreyDonahoo. “We’re trying to bring everyone together and grow soccer fandom—to build this community and have home games that are actual home games and the best supporter section of any national team in the world.”

Moments after kickoff, the chants began, the bar rocking with playful and profane songs. Most everyone was taking part, but even those who didn’t know the songs were welcome: The most distinctive thing about the Outlaws is that they in no way try to protect the small and friendly soccer world they live in. These weren’t British hooligans, those were booze-soaked British bruisers who are about as welcoming to outsiders as the Arizona militiamen.

But spreading the word has been a struggle. While the United States tends to dominate most sports, soccer has been a glaring exception. In fact, since the U.S. placed third in the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, they’ve yet to make even a consolation game, much less a final. And this year doesn’t look any more promising, with the team having been drawn in this summer’s World Cup “Group of Death.” Awaiting them in Brazil is Ghana (who dismissed the U.S. from the last two World Cups), Germany (considered one of the top three teams in the world), and Portugal (featuring arguably the best player in the game, Cristiano Ronaldo).

But the Outlaws remain upbeat, tirelessly recruiting new members and extolling the passion and unity of American soccer to anyone who will listen. They’ll convince you to visit them at a game or a watch party, even when it’s to their own detriment.

(Photographed for Maxim by Tim Soter)

“We’re almost our own worst enemy, because it’s getting more and more difficult to get tickets,” says Brock Kwiatkowsky, who works for an engineering construction firm in New Orleans. “It used to be there were always tickets available. But now the word, message, and support are spreading.”

The group’s inclusiveness doesn’t mean there isn’t a hierarchy inside the 120 official chapters or that the 17,000-plus members don’t relish their bragging rights. Outlaws refer to the games they’ve attended as “caps,” the same term that describes the number of times players have taken the field for their country. Large groups travel to whatever faraway locale is hosting the World Cup, but they’ll also spend the years leading up to it trekking to all the qualifying matches around North and Central America. In fact, America is second only to Brazil, the host country, in tickets purchased for the upcoming tournament.

Maybe it’s American hubris in international affairs or the soccer team’s underdog status, but these brave souls often get a violent reception, like the one Gustafson experienced in France.

The U.S.’s biggest rival remains our neighbor to the south, Mexico. Mexico City’s EstadioAzteca is the place where American soccer dreams go to die and from which American fans are lucky to escape unscathed. “It’s massive, it’s intimidating…loud, hot, noisy,” says Jason Burak, a longtime supporter who first visited enemy territory in 1997.

Soccer fanatic Jason Burak / Photographed for Maxim by Tim Soter

“It was epic for sure. People kind of throw out a lot, but that stadium was epic. It was 100,000 Mexican fans versus 500 American fans [in our section], it was so intense,” says Brunken. “To put it lightly, the stadium and the fans are definitely not the most welcoming. Everyone has a story of getting hit with something—cold beer, warm beer, ‘beer,’ a shoe, whole cans of soup.”

It can get nearly as hairy on American soil. “I flew down to Columbus for the U.S.-Mexico qualifier in 2009,” recalls Jason Burak. “The U.S. won 2-0, and the Mexican fans were upset. We’re outside the stadium, it’s completely pitch-black, and a fight breaks out. I’m 5’7″, the smallest guy there, and I hear somebody yelling, ‘Watch your hands!’ I turn around—my hands in my pockets—and a guy three times my size comes in with a flying punch, catches me in the face. I hit the concrete hard, breaking two teeth and fracturing my jaw.”

But the tide is starting to turn. “The first U.S.-Mexico game I went to had a ton of green [Mexico jerseys] and a small amount in red, white, and blue. I went to a Gold Cup final where food and beer were getting dumped on us, ketchup packets, the U.S. anthem getting booed…in New Jersey!” says Burak. “Fast-forward a few years to U.S.-Mexico in Columbus and the stadium is a sea of red, white, and blue. We used to be afraid of Mexico. Now we can compete with anybody.”

(Photographed by Denise McCooey / American Outlaws)

The players on the field feel it too.

“They’re our driving force,” says striker JozyAltidore. “They’re out at every game whether it be home or away, making their presence felt. I think that type of encouragement is important for any player. You need that extra push, that extra energy they give you.”

Clint Dempsey, second only to Landon Donovan in goal scoring for the United States, also feels the difference. “They’re incredible—and a great sign of how far soccer has come,” he says. “I‘ll always remember them in the World Cup Qualifier against Jamaica. I scored an early goal and made a point of saluting them because they were making so much noise and showing so much support.”

Seasoned soccer media vets and English expats Michael Davies and Roger Bennett broadcast as Men in Blazers on Sirius XM, bringing a cheeky, yet earnest brand of love to the USMNT and their supporters. “To stand behind the goal in Columbus before the Mexico game and to see the sea of supporters bellowing for their team bought a lump to our throats and a tear to our eye,” says Bennett. “Simply put, it was hard to believe the sport we love supported like this in America. The American Outlaws have made this possible with their detailed organization, unshakeable commitment, and passion that is as deep as the ocean.”

Ask any Outlaw when soccer will “arrive” in the States and you’ll get a similar answer from all of them. “I went to Seattle on a random weekend in June a few years ago and New England was a terrible team coming in and you still had 40,000 people chanting in unison. You go to Red Bull Arena and it’s packed with 20,000 people every game. MLS has started to beat the NBA in a per-game average,” says Burak. “What does it mean to have arrived?”

The American Outlaws are understandably tired of hearing that their favorite sport will never catch on. It already has, and they’d be happy to show you where.

Photos by Denise McCooey / American Outlaws