Bleacher Creatures move aside; you’ve got company. Meet the South Ward.
The fans sitting in the right field bleachers of Yankees Stadium are notorious for their rhythmic clapping and chanting of players’ names. But there is a huge difference between these Yankees fans and the wall of sound that comprises the South Ward at Red Bull Arena.
Oh, and never, ever call the South Ward fans.
Located behind the south goal at the Red Bulls 25,000-seat stadium in Harrison, N.J., the three sections of seats are never actually sat in. Instead, the Garden State Supporters Club, the Empire Supporters Club and The Viking Army fill these sections every Red Bulls game with the brash, passionate support unique to the New York-area. And they stand all game long, for 90 minutes.
But it is rarely standing still.
Anthony Poulin has served as the co-president of the ESC, the largest of the three supporters clubs in the South Ward and the oldest of the bunch. On gameday he is usually hoarse somewhere around halftime. A mild-mannered attorney by day, Poulin sheds the shirt and tie and transforms into a scarf-wearing, chanting maniac for 90 minutes.
“What first strikes you is just how much fun it is, and how different it is than being at most other sporting events,” Poulin said. “It’s not watching the game and cheering — it’s also a feeling of actually being a part of the game itself, like somehow your songs and enthusiasm is an invisible force helping the team guide the ball to the back of the net.”
The South Ward is filled with flagpoles on gameday and every inch of the concrete walls in front of the three sections are covered with banners. Perches stand in front of each section, where coordinated commands come from the “capos” who belt out the songs to the thousand fans before them. Streamers roll-out and controlled smoke bombs, released by specially designated fans, billow after Red Bulls goals.
This Thursday night, in a game that could send the Red Bulls into the playoffs with a win over rival Philadelphia, the South Ward will be sold out and in full voice. They will coordinate a march into Red Bull Arena, lighting flares and singing for the 10-minute walk. Lawyers and paralegals, media buyers and doctors, construction workers and a fashion model, all become one on game night.
It is organic, it is spontaneous and it has nothing to do with being a fan. It is a crazy, passionate love that gives the Red Bulls one of the most unique home atmospheres in MLS. Other support groups may be larger, but the South Ward, led by the ESC in the center of section 101, is probably the most innovative. Watch any soccer game in Major League Soccer’s other markets and you will hear a song or chant that originated from the South Ward.
“We have members from all over the world and walks of life and that is a big influence of our style,” said Hope McCarty, a native of Elmwood Park, N.J. and a member of the Garden State Supporters and the Viking Army. “This is a universal sport and to me, we all speak the same langue.”
Last summer, the Red Bulls hosted the Barclays New York Challenge, a tournament featuring several top European clubs. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp praised the South Ward after one of the matches for their enthusiasm and support, something he wasn’t expecting from a country that supposedly hasn’t embraced soccer. And the Red Bulls’ own have taken to the South Ward, applauding the home support after every win, loss and tie. The team’s newly-minted President of Business Operations, Chris Heck, made his first priority this past July to meet with the leaders of the South Ward.
Such is the power of their tireless voices.
“It’s absolutely tremendous, I’ve never seen anything like it. I wasn’t expecting this,” said Red Bulls forward Luke Rodgers.
The English forward is in his first season in MLS.
“They are loud, they are really into it. The support is great. I’ve never played before anything like it.”
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for in-depth news on the Red Bulls.