You see them at every MLS game. They stand behind the goals chanting and waving flags as the most rambunctious sections in the stadium. But where do the MLS supporters' groups come from?
Like many countries around the world, soccer in Italy is more like a religion than a civil activity. In many places, you're more likely to see a full stadium than a full cathedral. This is the atmosphere where the supporters' culture started.
Supporters' groups in Italy began in the late 1960s. They originally formed as a way to distribute tickets and arrange away trips for the most die-hard fans. Younger fans were attracted to the lifestyle of religiously following a team due to special reduced price campaigns put together by clubs located in the cheapest sections--usually located behind the goals.
As time went on, these groups began to develop a separate culture from the rest of the stadium. Calling themselves "tifosi" - Italian for fans - they would congregate in specific sections throughout the season.
In Italy, everyday life was brought into the stadiums for games. Many of the fans that were attracted to these groups were involved in political groups or movements and were used to quickly putting together displays to promote their cause. So, it comes as no surprise that those same types of displays soon made their way into the stadiums.
Banners would be draped over the front of the section and soon regular fans abandoned these sections to allow for these groups to show their displays. Another aspect that separated Italian fans from others around the world was their acceptance of other soccer cultures. They began using drums and horns, known as "Torcidas" from Brazil, and began lifting scarves and chanting as seen in England.
Terrace choreography became more advanced as the groups became more organized. These displays which included banners, flags, and pyrotechnics were called "tifo" taken from the word "tifosi." The fans who had formerly called themselves tifosi now began calling themselves "ultras."
The first group to use the term "ultra" was the Sampdoria Ultras from Genoa, founded in 1969. Over time, more and more groups began to use this term and eventually it became a description of a specific type of fan rather than any specific group.
To finance these displays, which were getting bigger and more expensive, the groups would take collections from their members and all were eager to contribute. In addition to the financial support, each member would be given a specific task such as acquiring certain materials for the display or setting up the display in the stadium.
While the tifo displays showed passion and love for their club, other aspects of Italian life began to show. Violence began to envelop the terraces as rival groups would take part in battles inside and outside of the stadium. Displays of racial discrimination and right wing propaganda have continued to cause trouble on the terraces.
With the start of Major League Soccer in 1996, the new clubs began to take part in this style which had become famous in Italy and spread throughout Europe and Latin America. The first two groups to form in support of MLS teams were La Barra Brava of D.C. United (named after the South American version of Ultras) and the Empire Supporters Club of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, now the New York Red Bulls.
As the league has matured, so too have the supporters' groups. Italian influence took root influencing displays; today, it's common to see flags waving, fans chanting, and tifo displays in the sections reserved for these groups.
While the groups continued to grow over the years, their popularity exploded as the league began to use them to market the league to a younger demographic. Today, to market themselves, MLS clubs use these supporters' groups more than they do the players on their roster.
These groups have taken many parts of the Italian Ultra scene and used them in a positive way. The displays have grown bigger and bigger each year to match the groups becoming larger and more boisterous. This has added to the atmosphere of MLS games and has helped the league become more popular.
One aspect MLS has tried to stay away from is the violence which has disgraced the Italian scene and they have generally been successful. The most dangerous situation at an MLS game came on July 20, 2008 when 100 Columbus Crew fans and 30 West Ham United fans clashed in Columbus during halftime of a friendly. Other than that attempt by Crew fans to emulate English hooliganism, which has become popular for some through the film Green Street Hooligans, most clubs have been able to focus on the positives of the scene.
In the melting pot that is the United States, soccer in this country has taken from many different cultures to create a culture of its own. Supporters' groups of teams at all levels have used these to support their club and promote the game. Hopefully the positives of the terrace culture continue to flourish as the negatives continue to be virtually non-existent.