As an avid Real Salt Lake fan living outside of Utah, I am very familiar with television broadcasts of soccer mathes at Rio Tinto Stadium. After the recent USMNT game against Honduras, I was surprised to read how much criticism the fans received for the perceived lack of passion. I think many factors played into why this perception seemed so rampant, and some of them actually attest to the incredible job that Real Salt Lake has done is building a strong fan base. While I think that the ESPN broadcast was not necessarily conducive to conveying the excitement of fans in the stands, the obvious differences between those who attended the game and the typical RSL crowd seem to have played an important factor.
The part of the ESPN broadcast that I believe most detracted from television viewers getting a sense of the crowd’s enthusiasm were the oddly placed cutaway shots to the a watch party in Chicago. It’s typical for this type of thing to happen during USMNT games, but it’s more generally seen when the match is taking place outside of the country. When the camera crew is already present in packed stadium, I just can’t understand why they would cut away from live crowd reactions. After Altidore’s goal, for example, the camera went to two quick overviews of the fans in Salt Lake followed by some shots of the players, saving the extreme close-up for the Chicago crowd. After the first goal during the US vs. Panama game in Seattle, however, the camera immediately went to four different shots of the crowd, all at different angles, with the announcers allowing a few blessed seconds of silence for the excitement to sink in for those of us at home. Then after a breakdown of how the goal was scored, the cameras showed another close shot of the stadium crowd before returning to the action on the field. Whoever managed the production of that game, did a much better job of showing the stadium crowd’s involvement. (You can see replays of both games at WatchESPN.com).
Another factor already mentioned by Jenniferj3a, was that the season ticket holding RSL fans were not sitting in their respective seating assignments. This kind of change for the typical fan can certainly have an affect on how well they coordinate chants and cheers (as mentioned by Jennifer). But an additional result of this change was that the Barra Real, which is, in my opinion, one of the most important RSL supporters groups, was missing from the game. The constant drum/trumpet music normally present in the east-side [correction southeast] stands was missing. While other teams in the MLS rely on Capos to whip the crowd into a frenzy, RSL has the Barra Real to provide the musical rhythm. And while the group has its own songs they sing in Spanish, it is also responsible at times for getting the whole stadium chanting together. If the crowd for the USMNT seemed lacking in comparison with RSL games, I think one could point to the lack of the Barra Real.
But if the USMNT in Seattle proved that the Sounders have great soccer fans, I think the criticism of the game in Rio Tinto actually proves that RSL organization is doing a great job at building a fan base for their club. RSL has built a large and diverse following, including a very impressive group of Latino supporters, something I have never seen widely acknowledged in the media. The growth of the MLS, in most markets, hasn’t been about getting people to like soccer, it’s been getting people who like European or South American soccer to like the MLS. Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and other cities in the US have enjoyed a long tradition of soccer culture and just needed successful teams to bring in a good crowd. But having grown up in Utah, I can say that in the Beehive State that is not the case. When Real Salt Lake was announced, I was among the majority who could never imagine it would stick around. But RSL have not only found a way to get the existing soccer fans in the state to like their team, but I believe they have turned a non-soccer state into one of the most soccer friendly places in the country.
A lot has been said about the impressive job that RSL management and coaching staff have done in turning the team around after a couple of rough years. But what sometimes goes unnoticed is how quickly the team has gained such a strong following in a place where only a short time ago soccer was not even an afterthought (at my high school, for example, the soccer team was only allowed to play their games on the football’s teams second practice field). Seattle had a great crowd that did a great job of cheering on our national team. But we shouldn’t forget that the current iteration of the Sounders is a result of efforts to get an MLS team dating back to 1994. And they can bring in an impressive attendance because the stadium they borrow from an NFL can support it. So maybe it didn’t seem like Utah fans had the same level of enthusiasm, but a sold out, soccer-specific stadium in one of the smallest sports markets is a pretty remarkable thing.