The chants were familiar, but the location was new.
“When it’s us vs. them, you can always count on me! When it’s us vs. them, this is Sounder’s unity,” chanted 15 members of the Emerald City Supporters during a match one recent Thursday in Honduras.
The Seattle Sounders lost 1-0 to Club Deportivo Olimpia in the Estadio National in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, but that didn’t stop the Emerald City Supporters from living up to their name. The Emerald City Supporters had traveled from Seattle to Honduras’ capital, not only to experience the game but to help at a soccer clinic at a local community center.
And for 90 minutes, the Emerald City Supporters jumped up and down, screamed, sang, chanted and clapped in unison waving their towels in the air. The ardent fans earned the applause of the Sounders themselves who paid homage to them on their final walk of shame off the field.
Traditionally located on the Brougham End of the Century Link field, the Emerald City Supporters are the largest independent group of official Sounders supporters. It has a membership of nearly 3,700 people making it one of the largest supporter groups in Major League Soccer.
Where the Sounders go, the ECS follow.
“My traveling is usually always based around soccer,” said Jessica Birch, a 26-year-old student teacher from the Highline School District. “This week it happened to be I had a two-week break from school so I was like okay where are the Sounders playing? Oh they’re going to Honduras, okay I’m going to Honduras. I can make this work.”
Birch had traveled extensively throughout the U.S. to watch the Sounders, but this organized trip gave her an opportunity to be in Honduras. “I love traveling, but I don’t know when I would go to Honduras otherwise to be honest. I would love to go and just explore, but I feel like I have to have more of an excuse or a reason to go,” she said.
“There are few things a supporter does that are more exhilarating than marching into enemy territory and making it your own home for an evening. Outnumbered by the home supporters, your only option is to let loose of your vocal cords, raise your two pole and make sure that our players can hear you,” wrote fan Shawn Wheeler on the group’s blog. Wheeler and fellow supporter Tom Biro organized the Honduras trip.
The concept of “enemy territory” took on a new connotation in the Honduran context. Sounders supporters literally found themselves in a country where a war once broke out during a soccer game.
But Birch wasn’t intimidated by the country’s history. “I traveled by myself to Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile,” said Birch. “And everyone was like, ‘You’re going to die or get kidnapped.’ And I was like, ‘No I really don’t feel that way.’ And maybe that’s me not wanting to see it, but I just think Americans especially limit themselves because of hearing stuff like that.”
At the recommendation of the U.S. Embassy, the 15 of us were escorted by police from the hotel to the stadium by bus. Every eye followed us as we passed. A few Olimpia fans lobbed crude gestures that needed no translation and one or two slapped the windows as we rolled by. Then traffic hit a standstill. After a bit of back and forth between the police and our driver it was decided we would walk the rest of the way.
It was the quietest moment of the night. The supporters tucked in their scarves and tried to minimize their swag, though they were hardly inconspicuous. Once ushered to the seats in our sparsely populated concrete box, the Sounders fans seemed to reclaim their purpose.
The stadium was full except for our section. The few Honduran fans seated near us posted up in the opposite corner. Whether it was because they wanted to sit there or because of the menacing presence of the five armed officers that surrounded us was unclear.
Police and military personnel in various uniforms were posted throughout the stadium, including a group in full riot gear that flanked the entryway to tunnel where the underground locker rooms were.
A police officer told me the security was relatively light for a soccer game.
“It’s not that important of a game so there’s only about 200 of us,” he said. He said that for important games that number might be doubled or tripled.
The intensity at Estadio National is different from what you’ll see at CenturyLink Field.
“We see a little bit of this kind of passion for soccer in the U.S. these days, but here it’s like these people’s lives,” said Biro.
With the energy of the crowd and the police presence, the match felt a bit like watching a soccer game in prison. Tall metal fences topped with barbed wire separated the field itself from the concrete bleachers. Barbed wire fences also divided each section.
All these precautions might have seemed unwarranted to a first-timer, but after an unfavorable call by a referee, I saw a fan toss a water balloon that missed the linesman by an arm’s length. On the other end of the field, someone threw a piece of the stadium, a small chunk of concrete that had come loose from the bleacher. Fortunately it landed harmlessly about 30 feet away from a photographer.
We had been strategically sat at the opposite end of “La Barra,” the section where the Barre Olimpia sat. “It’s better not to sit over there,” explained the officer. “Sometimes they get crazy. Usually we dismiss everyone else first because if not they wait around in the parking lot to cause trouble.”
Despite being separated by an entire soccer field, the energy of the Barre was palpable. The Emerald City Supporters were undeterred by the boos. And even when it seemed like the entire stadium was conspiring to drown them out the Emerald City Supporters kept going.
“No one likes us. No one likes us. No one likes us. We don’t care. We are Sounders, Mighty Sounders, from Brougham End,” they chanted.
Safety concerns did not stop the group from spending a few days in Roatan before traveling to Tegucigalpa to volunteer for a soccer clinic with two Sounders coaches, former player Roger Levesque and the youth from a local community center.
Though the game was the main draw, members of ECS said interacting with Honduran youth was the highlight of the experience.
Biro relished what he believes is a new experience for the Emerald City Supporters.
“This was pretty cool thing,” he said. “You know it’s not every day you get to play soccer with 40 to 50 kids in another country. It’s a good time.”
It was a good time — despite the moments of discomfort and the fact that even after a well-fought match, the Sounders weren’t able to eke out a victory.
“I’m sad we lost, but also looking on the bright side it’s not like we beat them 8-0 ‘cause that would have been scary. I think the energy in there was amazing.” Birch said. “When everyone in the stadium was jumping up and down, it’s one thing to see it, I think, in videos online, but it’s another thing to be in there and feeling it.”
Come back to The Seattle Globalist next week for the second part of Reagan Jackson’s trip to Honduras with the Emerald City Supporters.