It is not always sunny at the SuperDraft. Having spent basically zero time in the City of Bro-Love previously, that was a disappointment of a personal nature. A serious low. Help me, Jeru the Damaja. You're my only hope.
One thing to know about the SuperDraft scene: the actual draft component, despite my realization that Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl's beautifully bald head can probably reflect lasers, isn't really all that super.
The formal proceedings were decidedly drab, as only four teams could boast an organized supporters' presence on-site: New York City FC, the New York Red Bulls, Orlando City SC, and the hometown Philadelphia Union.
Similarly, only those same four teams even brought a full cadre of top brass to consult on draft day decisions. For its part, New York City brought the big guns. Manager Jason Kreis and Sporting Director Claudio Reyna kept busy playing the part of the rudder in a tempestuous sea of potential personnel moves.
It was a more kinetic affair among the cordoned-off supporters' sections at the back of the Grand Ballroom. Specifically for NYCFC, it was the first opportunity for their fledgling fan base to get in the mix with friends and foes under an MLS banner.
In alphabetical order, let's run through what Hudson River Blue learned about each of the four supporters' communities in attendance:
New York City FC's Third Rail
There was more than a little pressure on the Third Rail's draft delegation. After all, how is a fan expected to truly, fully support a team that only partially exists?
Until that first friendly in Manchester on February 10th (or at least until NYCFC is playable in the FIFA 15 video game), it isn't possible to point in one direction and say, "THERE, my friends, THAT is New York City FC." The task of publicly representin' for a team that (a) has no history, (b) is best known for a widely-reported, widely-mocked organizational scandal, and (c) is still building its inaugural first-team squad was going to be a tall one indeed.
The NYCFC Supporters' Club coordinated a crew of two dozen, myself included, to take a jaunt to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Among us were four members of the professional club's marketing and partnership departments.
On the bus trip Thursday morning, new songs -- they're all new right now, I suppose! -- were discussed and rehearsed while fellow expansion club Orlando City's potential for antagonism was considered with suspicious trepidation. Word started to spread through social media by about 8:15 AM that the Floridians had packed most of an airplane with a battalion of purple-clad pilgrims.
Upon arrival in the host city just before 9:30 AM, the New York City detachment immediately commenced "Beer Diplomacy" with the numerous Philadelphia Union fans already enjoying a cold one. Based on preliminary discussions, one fact clarified itself from the start: just about everyone hates New York Red Bulls fans.
Well! What could possibly instigate the emanation of Brotherly Love more powerfully than a common enemy?
By 11:00 AM on the floor of the SuperDraft, the other supporters' sections were wasting no time to mark their territory, using their voices the same way a wolverine uses its urine. How could they not? For the more veteran fan bases, this was just another match day. They knew the playbook. Even Orlando City, NYCFC's fellow expansion team, has played four seasons in Central Florida, albeit in American soccer's third tier.
This placed New York's Citizens in the position of odd team out. Who would lead the singing? Which song or chant made for the best opener? Who would coordinate responses to inevitable antagonism from other fans? The three other clubs in attendance were far past ironing out those details, and understandably so. On the floor of the Grand Ballroom that day, NYCFC's supporters were the plucky eighth grader playing basketball with the varsity team: their pride and spirit were sincere, but the big boys were going to snag every opportunity to take advantage and knock them around.
Despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous trolling, the passion was there. Third Railer Caleb-Michael Files made our 7:00 AM bus in Manhattan after working an all-night rotation for Apple. That's right, he was on hand for the out-of-state draft following a night of all work and no sleep. So, did that make him dedicated or crazy?
"Soccer is a big part of my life," Mr. Files explained. "It's where I've made a lot of my friends."
It was pretty evident that Philadelphia didn't have a monopoly on brotherly love. For a supporter base still finding its stride, this particular worldview makes for an encouraging place from which to launch.
By the mid-afternoon, New York City's first-ever draft pick, the tall, pacey forward Khiry Shelton of Oregon State University in Corvallis, appeared at Fado Irish Pub to meet his newest fans. Right around then, it started to feel as if NYCFC had finally achieved liftoff. The mutual outpouring was impressive.
Things were lifting off for Mr. Shelton, too.
I joked to him amid a joyous whirlwind of handshakes and photographs and welcome-aboards, "Just like Corvallis, right?"
"Just like Corvallis," he replied with a grin.
New York Red Bulls' Empire / Garden State Supporters / Viking Army
If we are to extend my basketball metaphor, the Red Bulls faithful are the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons -- massively derided, occasionally offensive, and prodigiously unapologetic -- but without the two league championships.
With their fan sections situated immediately adjacent to one another at the back of the auditorium, Major League Soccer's two New York-area franchises stood like a couple of center backs beefing over the right to wear the captain's armband. The RBNY SuperDraft routine, for its part, was well-organized if not a bit puzzling.
Their delegation was eager to stress New York City FC's role as Yankee Stadium's secondary tenant; early in the proceedings, the red-and-white Jerseyites belted an effusive rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" directly at the NYCFC section, which neither burned nor singed. It was a missed opportunity to dish some top-drawer venom.
These Red Bulls supporters didn't even parody the song at the expense their presumptive Hudson River rivals -- "Buy me some Mentos and Diet Coke / Everyone knows that your club is a joke" would have rankled, for instance -- they just regurgitated the original song. As an amateur scholar on the subject of player-hating, the Red Bulls' methods weren't quite worthy of a yellow card, deserving instead a Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag.
The proper draft began with some quick and humble remarks from newly-christened MVP Award namesake Landon Donovan and a unified chorus of boos directed at Commissioner Don Garber, the easiest target in the league (there's no Ched Evans that we know of in MLS). The pleasantries gave way to the Red Bulls supporters shouting "DE-REK JE-TER" at the New York City section while the sky blues were on the clock to make the second overall pick.
Once again, this was an opportunity squandered. Whether he's a personal favorite or not, Derek Jeter is a talismanic figure in the largest sports media market in the world. A major league jeer ought to have invoked a more dubious Bronx Bomber with whom nobody would ever want to be associated, like someone Scott Brosius-level or below. Maybe Scott Brosius.
(Honestly, pick any Yankees third baseman to troll on. Alex Rodriguez? Perfect. He's an awful person.)
A final distinguishing aspect of the RBNY regiment was their resolute, repeatedly-shouted desire (a) for Red Bull North America to dissociate itself from the club and (b) to express their unabashed support for Mike Petke, the former manager who got the sack on January 7th. Their favored chant for the second of the SuperDraft? Alternating between "RED BULL OUT" and "MI-CHAEL PET-KE."
I was thinking of a different song that I wish they'd done: "Stand by Your Man."
Any good fan base ought to be able to circle the wagons, and that deft circling ability was on full display in the big ballroom. Their prideful taunts didn't hit as hard as they could have on Thursday, but Red Bull Nation ended up making a show out of their defiance.
Orlando City SC's Ruckus / Iron Lion Firm
As previously mentioned, the O-Town supporters filled quite bit of their plane up to Philadelphia.
Not only did they plan this out extremely well -- keep in mind that OCSC has existed almost five years longer than NYCFC -- but they brought a purple unicorn to lead the charge. Which mystical creature can YOUR team claim?
I have only one problem with their stylings: OCSC's fans insist on pushing this unicorn meme such that it appears they now have two mascots. Their emblem is a lion. Is that not good enough? These two cannot coexist. They're the lions and the unicorns? That's like being a zombie and a Republican. (As everyone knows, zombies aren't pro-life.)
It has been widely documented that Orlando City, who selected University of Connecticut forward Cyle Larin with the first overall pick in the draft, has sought to cast NYCFC as a main rival. It makes sense from one perspective, as both teams make their MLS debuts on March 8th down in Central Florida. The mood on New York City's end is decidedly different, however, as the looming Hudson River rivalry with the Red Bulls has taken up most of their attention. Despite the Tri-State precedence, Orlando City's supporters wasted no time in twisting the knife whenever possible.
Why are you sitting?? pic.twitter.com/o2gsm4LykK— The Ruckus (@RuckusPR) January 15, 2015
The anti-NYCFC trolling didn't end there. Presumably within the purview of the Red Bulls faithful, it was actually the OCSC contingent that masterminded the seemingly inevitable Frank Lampard-themed torment:
"WHERE'S FRANK LAMPARD?"
"WHERE'S FRANK LAMPARD?"
Given the relative severity of the Super Frankie contractual scandal in the pre-debut era of New York City FC, no one is faulting the Fightin' Purple Unicorns for going down that road. Somebody was going to do it, and the Orlando fans mostly did a better job antagonizing New York City's Third Rail than the Red Bulls supporters did. What should we make of this? Is Orlando's desire for a true MLS rival enough of a motivating factor by itself to make it happen by sheer will? That would be a black eye for the original New York-area team, especially in these uncertain days post-Mike Petke, post-Thierry Henry, and, perhaps, soon-to-be-post-Red Bull North America. They need the new rivalry, and they need to command it.
No matter how we choose to view the dynamic of the 2015 expansion, OCSC has the nation's attention, including that of our favorite shiny-headed soccer writer:
Orlando City fans out in full force at the MLS Draft in Philadelphia pic.twitter.com/T3pbDBUJue— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) January 15, 2015
If I put on a purple and black Deadpool mask like the fan in the middle of the photo, will you comment on my force also, Grant?
I'd settle for a tepid re-tweet.
Philadelphia Union's Sons (and Daughters!) of Ben
Upon our arrival in the host city, we New Yorkers clinked pint glasses with an impressive contingent of Sons and Daughters of Ben. These interactions were massively refreshing, as my previous understanding of Philadelphia sports fans dates back to a great number of stereotypically vicious standoffs between my favorite pro teams and their respective Philly rivals.
My beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a real team, believe me) and the hated Philadelphia Eagles always seemed to cross paths in theduring the first few years of the millennium. Love did not play a role in those contests. Add that to the more recent late-season collapses perpetrated by my Atlanta Braves for which the divisional rival Phillies were often the main beneficiary, and one can imagine my "finite love and respect" for the local sports fans overall.
My apprehension, however, was corrected upon meeting a great many hospitable, jovial, good-faith Union supporters, and the same can be said for just about all twenty NYCFC supporters who made the trip. Did the beer help? Sure, but that's never a foregone conclusion.
Largely, it was the mutual disdain for the Red Bulls that brought Philly and NYC together that morning. It's a bit like standing in the school lunch line and realizing that you and the older kid in front of you both really hate the same math teacher (and maybe that suspicious macaroni salad also). Forces in apparent opposition have bonded over less.
As a Union fan named Julian reminded me, "Soccer supporters aren't always a force to be villainized."
It is universally acknowledged that New York City FC's supporters face an uphill climb to establish themselves on the order of the more senior MLS fan bases because they have yet to play a sanctioned game at any level. Well, consider this: during the three intervening years between the founding of the Sons of Ben Supporters' Club and Philadelphia Union's entry into MLS (!), the Philly faithful would routinely travel to Red Bulls and DC United games in order to taunt both teams. Yes, that just about symbolizes everything we know and love/fear about Philadelphia sports fans. It is also incredibly impressive.
Even today, the Union have only made the MLS Playoffs one time-- 2011, when they dropped out in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Their public showings continue to be impressive regardless, and they proved to be more than capable hosts for this event, the second time they have played that particular part.
No neutral party would say that these fans are running on an empty tank. The single biggest takeaway from my interactions with the Sons of Ben demonstrated just how bright the fire burns in the the Brotherly Town: it's the tale of Eric Shertz, an eternal supporters' club member and nothing short of a folk hero in MLS circles.
Eric's story is not mine to tell; draft day was the first time I'd heard more than just a name. The short version? Eric was a ubiquitous superfan and inaugural Son of Ben. He lost his life in April of 2014. To do right by Eric, his family, and the community that adored him, I'll turn things over to our SB Nation colleagues at Brotherly Game.
Here's what Managing Editor Eugene Rupinski wrote on April 21st of last year just hours after Eric passed away, edited only for length:
"Once in a while you meet someone who changes everything. When I met him, Eric Shertz and I hit it off immediately. Tall and lanky like me, Shertz knew the game inside and out. Once when my car was broken down, [Eric and his son] picked me up and took me to the match no questions asked for the princely sum of a jar of my homemade barbeque sauce. In 2011, he gave me his front row seats because it was my son's birthday. When Shertz heard I had been tasked with coaching my son's U8 team, he gave me a whole binder full of coaching tips and drills to use with the kids. I last saw Shertz before the match last weekend against RSL. We did what we always do - stopped and shot the breeze for a bit, just taking it all in. Little did I know that would be the last time I'd ever see him."
Eric passed away in his sleep in the early hours of April 20th, 2014. Authorities could not determine a cause of death. He was 38.
The following weekend, Philadelphia Union and DC United supporters came together on match day to enjoy food and drinks in Eric's honor. Both clubs produced numerous tributes at their stadiums, online, and around their communities.
A number of Sons of Ben I met on the morning of the SuperDraft sported the typical blue-and-yellow Philadelphia Union scarves in addition to a black-and-white scarf made in Eric's honor. The black side reads "LIVE LIKE SHERTZ," written as if by hand, situated between "1975" and "2014." Flipping it over, the white side sounds like the most endearing of Calvin-and-Hobbesian messages: "...LET'S GO EXPLORING!" Eric's name appears alongside.
I wanted to learn as much as I could about Eric and what he meant to the community, but couldn't be surprised that many of his comrades, including Sons of Ben Supporters' Club President Kenny Hanson, were unwilling to breach the subject in much detail; he passed less than a year ago, and he was still in his prime when it happened.
As supporter Rick McGovern volunteered, "Eric Shertz was the best of us in every possible way. I had a drink with him the day before he died. The second Union game I ever went to, I bought his tickets." McGovern made it especially clear to me that Eric was always the first person to make outside fans feel welcome. In that way, his essence was ubiquitous and poignant on that day in downtown Philadelphia.
Eric makes the Philly faithful sing louder and longer. He's a conduit. A one-man nuclear plant. His influence doesn't appear to have waned in any way.
To say the very least, it's plainly true that New York City FC doesn't have that. Not yet.
The 2015 MLS SuperDraft ended up being whatever the fans chose to make of it, and the Philadelphia Union's supporters went a long way in making the environment accessible and hospitable for just about everyone. (I cannot speak for the Red Bulls' delegation.) It was the first time all those sharks got to lurk in the same tank, and begs a bit of fan intrigue for the preseason Carolina Challenge Cup, in which Orlando City and NYCFC will cross paths again.
What will Mike Petke be doing at that time? That remains unclear. What we do know is this: MLS has the shortest offseason in sports, and we're really getting on with it now.
That may qualify as super.
Special thanks to the Third Rail Supporters Club for coordinating travel for the New York delegation, and to member Neverson Heatley III for providing our very best photos (Creative Commons license BY-NC-ND). Find Neverson on Twitter @ubjuris and on the web at www.heatley.nyc.