Throughout U.S. Soccer's Fan Week, we'll bring you feature stories on those that go above and beyond in their support of our teams, players and the federation itself. On Monday, we talked to Kelly Johnson and Dale Houdek, who fell in love while traveling to support the U.S. Men's National Team. At the Men’s and Women’s Nike International Friendlies earlier this month, we caught up with some members of the American Outlaws (AO), U.S. Soccer’s largest supporters’ group.
“We love you, we love you, and where you go we’ll follow.”
These words represent the highlight of Ron Chin’s U.S. Soccer fandom, a devotion that dates to 1969. He earned his first cap in August 1973, but his most memorable moment as a supporter came last year at the 2016 Nike International Friendlies. Rising U-17 stars like Josh Sargent and Andrew Carleton serenaded the American Outlaws assembled in Lakewood Ranch with those words after taking home the tournament title.
“(The Friendlies) are their American Outlaws initiation,” Chin said. “They knew our support came from the heart and they were serenading us from the heart. It was very personal. At the Friendlies, we are U.S. Soccer evangelists. We’re about the future of AO and the National Teams.”
The serenade’s verse encapsulates all that the American Outlaws have represented during the last ten years. It’s a go-to chant for AO on gameday.
Founded in 2007 to support the U.S. at every single one of its matches – men and women – the American Outlaws now boast more than 30,000 members and 195 chapters nationwide. After a decade of dedicated support, AO’s presence at the Friendlies ensures that the future of the National Teams feel their backing in full.
“We want to support the Youth National Teams. They’re the future,” said Justin Brunken, Co-Founder and Vice President of AO’s National Chapter. “If we have the bandwidth and the capability to do that, we need to. We want to make them aware that people actually care and support them at this level. It’s hard to do that if you’re not here.”
Brunken, alongside Korey Donahoo, founded AO in 2007. He and his friends would travel across the country to follow U.S. Soccer, but when they arrived at their destination, they never had a way to connect with like-minded fans. A desire to share their passion for soccer and to make a grand entrance on game day catalyzed the creation of the Outlaws.
“We didn’t see a way to meet up with other people from all around the country,” Brunken said. “So, we said ‘why don’t we just do that?’ We built our whole thing on community, trying to bring people together both online and in person, and communication, making sure everyone knows this is where you can meet fellow fans.”
After the frustration of not finding festivities around gameday, consistency was key for Brunken and the other AO founders. Now, the group is a mainstay at National Teams matches, putting on night-before parties, tailgating pre-game and loudly making their presence known in the stadium.
“Our mission with AO is to be at every single game, men’s and women’s, in some capacity to unite fans,” said Brian Hexsel, AO’s National Chapter chairman. “We have over 195 chapters across the U.S., so even if you can’t make it to a game with the American Outlaws, you can always have an AO family at your bar in your own city.”
An idea to bring fans together from all over the country has taken Brian and Justin all over the world following U.S. Soccer. They travel to as many games as they can domestically and abroad, and the trips have provided innumerable memorable moments.
Brunken’s journey to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup was beset by a bevy of travel issues, arriving in South America just two hours before the USA’s opener against Ghana was scheduled to kick off. Taking a shuttle from the airport, the traffic was so slow Brunken and his compatriots ditched the car more than a mile from the stadium to make a mad dash to the field. It was an unbeknownst race against the clock to see the fastest World Cup goal in U.S. Soccer history.
“We got in there just in time to buy a beer and see Dempsey score,” Justin said. “I’m an adult and I cried so hard.”
More than 500 people travelled on the Outlaws’ package to Brazil. The trip turned into a family affair for Hexsel, who had the opportunity to visit his Brazilian relatives but also grow closer with his AO compatriots.
“It’s a family,” Hexsel said. “Travelling to games with your friends, you become like a travelling family that loves the sport and wants to be a part of something. That’s American Outlaws. It goes to ‘Unite and Strengthen,’ that’s our motto.”
AO’s power to “Unite and Strengthen” the American fan base doesn’t go unnoticed by the National Teams. Brunken remembers a mass of fans waiting outside the MNT’s bus in Pretoria, South Africa during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Then-head coach Bob Bradley started to tear up when he saw the overwhelming support.
“Oh, that’s why we do this,” Brunken said upon seeing the teary-eyed coach.
That personal connection with U.S. Soccer is what keeps bringing Chin back to the Nike Friendlies. He founded the local Sarasota chapter, and he has spearheaded the AO contingent at the annual event for the last four years. Chin prides himself as being one of the first Outlaws to see players like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Sargent play. This year, he also witnessed the rise of Sophia Smith, Jaelin Howell, and other Youth WNT players.
The U-17s that serenaded Chin and the rest of AO last year in Florida put together a remarkable run at this fall’s 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India. Chin grew close with the players’ families at the Friendlies, and he was in contact with them during the tournament. After his experience with the players at the Friendlies, it was essential to Chin that they knew there was a piece of home behind them.
After their “AO initiation,” Chin is excited to see where the young players go next. He won’t be missing the Friendlies anytime soon.
“I may be the old man, but always have an eye not only for the past, but also for the future,” Chin said. “The excitement comes in watching the future of the National Teams. We have to be supportive of the future generations and make sure that they’re playing for something. Whoever comes down here and wears the crest, we’ll be there for you.”