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American Outlaws bridge one of women's soccer's most infamous divides

One of the most remarkable things to me about this Women's World Cup has been the presence of the American Outlaws. It's the first time ever that the organization has coordinated official travel packages to a women's tournament.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - I have written many first-person stories on here over the years, but with just a few rare exceptions, I've kept my own experiences as a soccer fan to myself.

This post is going to be one of those exceptions. I hope you don't mind. And it's going to be a long exception. I hope you don't mind that either.

One of the most remarkable things to me about this Women's World Cup has been the presence of the American Outlaws. It's the first time ever that the organization has coordinated official travel packages to a women's tournament.

The Outlaws' presence was impossible to miss in Winnipeg. Everywhere you looked on the city's main streets, you saw people wearing AO t-shirts or scarves. They came from Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, and even Philadelphia. I'm sure you all got a taste of it on television during the two U.S games at Winnipeg Stadium.

Now the scene has shifted west. Vancouver is being flooded with masses of American Outlaws members from some of the nation's signature soccer markets: Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego.

On Tuesday night, BC Place will be a maelstrom of noise and color the likes of which we have perhaps never seen for a U.S. women's national team game.

Yes, there were huge crowds at the 1999 World Cup. But the particular kind of passion that AO has brought to women's soccer - a true soccer supporter culture - wasn't there back then.

Indeed, that culture didn't exist within the WoSo community during the last World Cup four years ago.

I know this not just from the stories that others have told, whether on barstools or blogs.

I know this because for many years before becoming a full-time journalist, I personally lived it.

Over the last few weeks, I've reached out to some of my old friends from Washington, Philadelphia and elsewhere to re-assemble tales of how we - yes, I used the first person - tried to build a supporter culture for women's soccer in the early 2000s. The dynamics in the WoSo community back then were very different from what they are now.

Here are a few examples.

If you were at Lincoln Financial Field when the United States played Nigeria during the 2003 Women's World Cup, you might have noticed a few college-age kids carrying giant timpani drum heads in the north end zone.

One of those kids was me.

One of the others was a close friend of mine who was in the University of Pennsylvania pep band, and went into the storage room to get the drum heads for the occasion. We had tried to get a group together to stand as Sam's Army at the game.

That group ended up being the two of us, two other former hallmates in a Penn dorm, and one or two other people at most.

As I said above, you might have noticed us. But in reality, I'm sure almost no one did.

Perhaps you were at the U.S.-Sweden game at RFK Stadium in D.C. a few days earlier. If you were, you might have noticed a certain group of fans in a corner of RFK Stadium's old horseshoe-shaped end zone. You might have recognized Sam's Army "Baby Big-Ass Flag" being raised during the Star-Spangled Banner.

Frankly, I have a hunch that you did notice that group. Even if you didn't see it, you heard it. many drums, including the big "El Bombo" from D.C. United's La Norte supporters club.

(That was, by the way, back in the time when La Norte actually was in the north end of RFK for United games.)

I was there too, along with the same group of friends that attended the Nigeria game. The group as a whole numbered a few dozen.

During the first half, a photographer from Getty Images took some photos of our group:

In the first photo, I'm the bent-over guy in the Clint Mathis jersey. My college friends are the three people holding up the left side of the flag.

In the second photo, I'm under the flag near the left edge, turned to the side. The guy at the far right corner with the drum set tied around his waist is Al Mattei. You may know him as the author of the Top of the Circle blog on women's soccer and field hockey. You may also know him as the guy who had the bagpipes at the CONCACAF Women's World Cup qualifying rounds at PPL Park last autumn.

How do I know the photos were taken in the first half of the game? Because we weren't there during the second half. After being repeatedly told by families in the sections around us to sit down and be quiet, at halftime we agreed with stadium security that we would move to the upper deck.

We weren't bothered after we moved. But as you can imagine, that doesn't mean we were happy.

Mattei's memories of that day are still as sharp as mine.

"There was a certain resistance amongst even American fans," he told me. "After the USA-Sweden game, the second game was South Korea against Brazil. The South Korean fans were a lot of fun to be with - much more fun than the American fans who wanted us to be quiet."

A day earlier, Mattei had traveled to Philadelphia to watch a doubleheader of Norway vs. France and Nigeria vs. North Korea. There, too, he encountered resistance.

"When I brought a drum to the gate, the Lincoln Financial Field security force did not allow me to bring an instrument into the stadium," he said. "Yet for the second game, Nigerians had brought plenty of percussion instruments. I made it a point to find the Lincoln Financial Field security personnel who had, frankly, discriminated against me and all American fans."

Mattei and I have been good friends ever since we first started attending games together, during the Women's United Soccer Association era in the early 2000s. He was part of a small supporters club for the Washington Freedom called The Crusaders. At one game, I wandered over to section 139 and found the group raising a banner with stitched-together flags from a range of nations whose players were on the Freedom roster.

I knew instantly that I had found my right place.

That might not have happened, though, if not for the groundwork laid by a D.C. United and U.S. national team fan named Ron Kessler. He was more responsible than anyone else for creating and sustaining the Crusaders, and for fighting through the resistance of the Freedom front office.

(He's also in those photos above, at the lower right corner of the Baby Big-Ass Flag with his own flag draped around his neck.)

"While I appreciate the Washington Freedom letting us set up a section at RFK for WUSA games, we were considered more of a nuisance than a contributor to the atmosphere by many fans we encountered both home and away - and we were never that large anyway," he told me. "The few hardcore supporters back then were ahead of their time trying to bring their brand of atmosphere to women's soccer."

I attended Freedom games with the Crusaders regularly, even after I moved to Philadelphia to start college. Even with the sparse crowds and D.C.'s all-too-frequent summer thunderstorms, we made some great memories together.

One of them came in the 2001, the league's first season, when the Freedom and D.C. United teamed up to host the first of what would become many doubleheaders at RFK. A crowd of 36,528 flocked to East Capitol Street. Not everyone attended both games, but many of them did.

A fair few La Norte members were among those who came for the whole afternoon. Quite a few of the Crusaders members were also in La Norte, myself included, so we moved from section 139 to our other home behind the net.

It was a great afternoon, and a special one for one of America's best soccer markets. But the potential for increased crossover support didn't seem to resonate with the Freedom or the WUSA as a whole.

"Back when the WUSA started in 2001, there was a general cluelessness about what to do about organized support of women's soccer, such as the Crusaders," Mattei said. "Front offices, security, and even other fans didn't know what to do with us."

At the end of the 2002 season, there came a long-sought glimmer of hope. When the Freedom traveled to Villanova Stadium to play the Philadelphia Charge in the semifinals of that year's playoffs, the Freedom chartered buses for fans to come with them. I don't know what the team's expectations were, but they ended up bringing almost a full section.

(For the record, I wasn't one of them, as I was traveling with my parents at the time. I wasn't complaining, and still am not, but for a long time part of me wished I had been there.)

Every time the Villanova Stadium public address played that traditional bugle call, the blue-clad mass yelled "FREEDOM!" while the rest of the stadium yelled "CHARGE!" That sparked a new tradition which came back south to RFK. And the fans who made the bus trip to the Main Line were ultimately rewarded with a 1-0 win, though the Freedom lost the title game.

In 2003, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach teamed up to finally bring the Freedom its first title. During the ensuing offseason, the Freedom front office finally started properly acknowledging the Crusaders' work. Mattei said the team asked "a couple of us to join a focus group to help out with marketing, and to screen potential commercials for the team's fourth season."

A few months after the season ended, Kessler moved out of the D.C. area. And a few months after that, the WUSA collapsed. The fourth season never happened.

If it had, I would likely have been in charge of running the Crusaders, even though I was living most of the year in Philadelphia.

To be fair, the dividing lines between WoSo and other soccer communities did not just run in one direction. Plenty of my friends back then didn't care for the women's game, and to this day, some still don't.

That stance isn't unreasonable. It's simply a matter of personal taste. But the tone was different in the early 2000s. No one now disputes the popularity of the sport or the stars who play it. As Kessler told me, that wasn't the case back then.

"During the 1999 WWC and the WUSA days, harder core supporters of the U.S. men and MLS didn't want much to do with women's soccer, and those in charge of women's soccer didn't want much to do with a supporters culture," he told me. "Rightly or wrongly, there was some perceived anti-men's soccer rhetoric out of the U.S. women's national team and WUSA camps that helped keep fans of the men's game away."

Some of that rhetoric came from former U.S. women's star and current ESPN analyst Julie Foudy. Before the WUSA launched in 2001, the league's organizers competed directly with Major League Soccer for the right to the U.S. Soccer Federation's sanctioning of a women's league.

"We will not play for WMLS," Foudy told at the time. Among the reasons why: all 20 members of the 1999 Women's World Cup-winning team signed written agreements to play for the WUSA.

"With all the resources these companies have and all the promotion you can have, we feel you need that directed focus and energy that is solely behind the women's game," Foudy said.

Carla Overbeck, one of Foudy's 1999 teammates, told the Associated Press at the time: "The MLS focus is on the men, the WUSA on the women and it provides a chance to build the sport of soccer throughout the United States."

MLS commissioner Don Garber pled his case by stating that "a combined effort would help us position ourselves vs. the other sports as opposed to cannibalizing on the support of either leagues."

Garber also promised that "collectively, we would ensure the women's viability, which is important to us."

U.S. Soccer Federation president Dr. Bob Contiguglia was tasked with making the final decision.

"I am aware of the women's desire to have a league of 'their own,' and I can sympathize with that," he said at the time. "But they have to respect our needs as well."

Ultimately, the WUSA won out. But it was in many ways a pyhrric victory - not least because the league blew through its five-year budget of $40 million before the inaugural season was done.

Nowadays, MLS and the NWSL get along pretty well - in part thanks to U.S. Soccer's proactive role in sustaining the NWSL's existence. In Portland and Houston, the MLS teams run the NWSL teams, helping to reduce overhead costs with shared media relations and marketing staffs.

For a league that will need for some time to count every penny it spends, that's a good place to start.

Having established what happened in the past, the next question to answer becomes how we got from there to the present era of success.

Former Philadelphia Independence coach Paul Riley is due some credit for having encouraged the Sons of Ben to come to the team's games, and ensuring that the group had its own space when it came. So is former Women's Professional Soccer commissioner Jennifer O'Sullivan, who very publicly stated before that league's college draft in 2012 that it needed men's soccer fans to bring their support to women's teams.

At that time, O'Sullivan was by some distance the highest-ranking person in the women's soccer community who had ever said anything like that to me. But the 2012 WPS season never happened, because like the WUSA, O'Sullivan's league went under after three years too.

Personally, I don't know that there was a single point at which the tide turned. I spent a lot of time asking people who've long been involved with women's soccer if there's something specific they'd highlight. And I don't mean short-term flashes in the pan like those old doubleheaders. I mean a signal of success that could be sustained.

Of all the people I surveyed, only current U.S. women's national team captain Carli Lloyd offered a really concrete answer. She highlighted the epic 2011 Women's World Cup semifinal win over Brazil that vaulted a new generation of American players to superstardom - herself included.

"Prior to that, people were following, they were watching, but after that game was a tremendous turning point," the Delran native told me. "We're icons. Everything we say and do is being portrayed everywhere. We walk outside of our hotels and everybody is getting noticed."

Yet even with that, Lloyd knows that what the players see from within their soccer-focused bubble is just a fraction of their greater impact on the American landscape.

"It's pretty cool, and I don't think we all realize the magintude of it yet," she said. "I think it's something we'll look back on and say, 'Hey, that was pretty cool and pretty remarkable.' "

Lloyd makes a compelling case. If I had to pick something concrete, though, I think I'd go with an event that I learned about while doing the interviews for this story: the moment when Dan Wiersema became a high-ranking official with the American Outlaws.

Many of you likely know of Wiersema from his work as the founder of the Free Beer Movement. Others of you may know him for his work assisting the American Outlaws with communications and social media.

He is as passionate a soccer fan as you will ever meet, and he offers the same generosity of spirit to every team he puts his energy into backing.

When Wiersema joined the organization, he made it a specific goal to bring AO's support to the women's team.

"Our whole goal from the beginning has been to support all the U.S. national teams, from the men to the women to the youth," he told me. "We're hoping that the 2015 World Cup for the women is an 'it' moment for us to show American soccer that we have an equality of support for both the women and the men."

As the process of building towards the present day began, Wiersema also encountered his own share of reistance.

"In some of our early efforts, there was a lot of "Sit down, we can't see the game" sort of things," he said. "But U.S. Soccer has been great in giving us our own sections now, that put ourselves away from an element where we might be mixing and causing disruption. That's allowed us to kind of, in a sort of incubator, grow the supporters culture in a way that still isn't controversial whatsoever."

The current generation of players has responded in kind.

"Now that the American Outlaws are here, we're wanted by them," Wiersema said. "Utimately the team is our greatest inspiration, so as long as they continue to be inspired by us on the field, we'll continue to be who we are in the stands."

You saw a hint of that back in the fall, when AO's Philadelphia chapter - led so well by Greg Hutelmyer and Julian and Karyn Brown - delivered a strong turnout at PPL Park for the final rounds of CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying tournament.

"The Philadelphia chapter is an incredible chapter," Wiersema said. "We're looking forward to them coming back for the men's Gold Cup [in July]... When it comes to hosting games in PPL Park and Lincoln Financial Field this summer, there's never a doubt that we're going to have an incredible event."

As I told Wiersema of my own experiences, he chuckled. It turns out that on Tuesday night, a group of U.S. women's national team fans trying to build a supporters culture will once again be in the upper deck of a World Cup stadium. And it just so happens that the Americans will be playing Nigeria for the first time in a World Cup since their meeting in Philadelphia.

This time, though, the American Outlaws will be in the upper deck on purpose.

"In order to get our own sections that were not going to be impeded by other fans who had purchased tickets, we are actually in the upper bowl of BC Place," Wiersema said. "We have two sections reserved for us, and there is no doubt that you're going to be able to hear us throughout the entire stadium."

Among those who have witnessed the impact of the Outlaws' influence is J.P. Dellacamera, Fox's lead play-by-play voice at this year's Women's World Cup. Not many people can say they watched games at the 1999 and 2015 tournaments in person; fewer still can say they've done so with the incredible wealth of experience and perspective that Dellacamera has.

He credits social media and the rise of Major League Soccer's supporters groups - especially those who travel - for fueling the American Outlaws' growth.

"I don't know if [the women's soccer community] didn't want it or if it just wasn't embraced" in years past, he told me. "I think the biggest difference over the years is the supporters groups that are traveling. I think it has created an atmosphere that is like it is Europe and South America and other places, where you expect to see that, and I think that this was the next step for the American Outlaws, because women's soccer is big in our country - especially on the national team level."

Kate Markgraf, another '99er who's now an ESPN analyst, told me she's happy "that the demographics of women's soccer fans have expanded beyond soccer moms and young families."

Foudy praised the Outlaws for having "single-handedly changed the culture for soccer viewers in this country."

And to judge from Foudy's words, the culture changed for her too.

"I wish they'd been around when we played," she told me.

That is a fascinating statement given Foudy's role in keeping the WUSA's operations and culture separate from the sphere of MLS.

"Now you have a community, and everyone loves a community," she said. "And even if you don't know the game, you're part of something bigger, where you're cheering on your country, your nation and your players."

The ability to build that sense of community remains one of the eternal appeals of soccer, and indeed many other sports. But it is a particularly significant trait of the world's game, and it's what drew me in when I was first exposed to soccer's culture while in France during the 1998 World Cup.

As Markgraf told me, "there's a place for everyone."

I have long since relinquished my fandom, but it is still immensely rewarding for me to look around women's soccer and see Markgraf's words ring true.

And so, to the present.

I am putting the final touches on this essay while sitting in a coffee shop across the street from Jack Poole Plaza , where Fox has built a spectacular two-story studio for its World Cup coverage. Since arriving in Vancouver on Thursday, I've seen a steady stream of American Outlaws and other U.S. women's team fans coming over here. Even though Fox isn't officially allowed to show games on its big screen, there have been opportunities to show up on the network's studio shows, and to interact with the on-air talent.

It's a destination. And to parallel what Foudy said, it has become a community.

If some of you out there - indeed, if many of you out there - didn't know about any of this stuff before now, that's fine. I really mean that. You can't truly grow a sport or a community without inviting a substantial number of genuinely new people into the proverbial big tent.

I hope that in writing this, I've done something to help show that the way things are now is not the way things have always been. Don't take the American Outlaws' presence at this World Cup for granted, because the organiation's gains have been hard-earned.

I know that AO isn't the only group that has worked to sustain supporters clubs in American women's soccer. There are plenty of groups across the country, especially in National Women's Soccer League markets, who have succeeded in their own ways.

But what the Outlaws have done this summer is, with all due respect, far bigger - both quantitatively and qualitatively.

So to Dan Wiersema and everyone else in the organization who has helped bring us to this day, from someone who spent a long time traveling on that same road:

Thank you for what you have done this summer both in Canada and back home.

Thank you for finally ending the fight to bring supporter culture into the women's game.

And above all, thank you for winning it.