USA flagAmerican patriotism is a heart on sleeve affair. As a visitor to the United States there is a sense that you’re never more than a few hundred yards from a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes.

American children pledge allegiance to the flag at school, and the national anthem is sung at all sporting events, not just show piece finals. There is then perhaps an irony that America’s main spectator sports provide little opportunity to cheer on American national teams in major sporting events. Enter football to fill the void.

As the world’s most popular sport, football is the most obvious outlet for national pride on a sports field, as Brent Atema, editor of the website Global Football Today, explains: “Americans love their national teams. We are always looking for any excuse to be patriotic. We also love an underdog. The US [football] national team has provided the opportunity to cheer on our country while also cheering on an underdog.”

To question whether football can work in America has become a moot point; football is working in America. A positive showing at the past two World Cups and an appearance in the final of the Confederations Cup – including a 2-0 victory over Spain along the way – has established the US as a competitive football nation. Not a world beater, yet, but few are.

The recent decision to remove Bob Bradley as head coach and replace him with Jürgen Klinssman was further demonstration of the ambitious aspirations of the US as a football nation. However, there is still the nagging feeling that Americans haven’t grown up with football; it is not part of their culture, and therefore it can never really thrive.

Historically, there was plenty of evidence to support this view. The mainstream media paid almost no attention to football, but were happy to criticise it whenever interest stirred. To compound the problem, when the US played at home, they would often find the stadium filled with noisy fans supporting the opposition – an inevitable consequence for a nation built on migration from all corners of the globe.

That’s not to say support for the US team was non-existent, but there may have been a sense that America was lacking a fan culture of its own. It was this challenge that led to the birth of the American Outlaws – a supporters’ organisation whose objective is simple: ‘to support the United States National Team through a unified and dedicated group of supporters’.

The Outlaws were established in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2008 by Justin Brunken and his friends, who felt that American fans were being short changed by their experience as supporters of the national team.

Brunken explains: “We went to a lot of games and we never knew what was going on for the fans. We couldn’t see any cohesion or fans together. So, we thought we could unite fans across the whole country; plan events to bring fans together before the game; and, communicate consistently with as many fans as possible.  Hopefully we could then fill more and more of the stadium each game with passionate US fans.”

Easier said than done when you’re trying to harness interest among fans dispersed across a nation as vast as the US, but the Outlaws have developed their strategy to embrace this challenge instead of seeing it as a problem.

This being America, the Outlaws have what appears to be a typically federal model; a national body, headed by Justin and his peers, takes the lead in organising events at the games, such the uniquely American form of pre-match socialising, the tailgate.

But, in keeping with their initial approach, the movement’s success is grounded in grass roots activism. There are American Outlaws ‘chapters’ springing up in cities and towns across the US, and they are encouraged to organise their own activities as they see fit. One of the only pre-requisites is that each Chapter must have a designated bar to organise viewing parties for US fixtures.

The efforts of Justin and his peers haven’t gone unnoticed by the national team, with former coach Bob Bradley apparently teary eyed with pride after witnessing the passion of their support in South Africa ahead of a crucial 2010 world cup tie against Algeria. For Justin, this is the best motivation they can have to continue their work.

“Feedback from the Team really keeps us going, because it takes a lot of work, and sometimes without a ton of reward,” he said. “But we have gotten some great acknowledgment and support from current and past players.”

It would appear their work is paying off. The Outlaws now boast 6,000 paid up members, have over 50 chapters across the US, and thousands more fans subscribe to their various communications, with numbers growing all the time. Last year they hosted the first American Outlaws convention (in Las Vegas, where else), featuring former US international Alexi Lalas and high profile sports journalist Grant Wahl as guest speakers.

Even so, they are up against some pretty weighty opposition in the form of the NFL, MLB and NBA, as well as the collegiate tournaments that receive massive publicity. But, perhaps football’s advantage is that it doesn’t have to compete head on. It is not so ingrained in American culture, therefore, as Brunken argues, it can offer spectators something different.

“Football provides a different culture than the other sports; it provides an atmosphere that a lot of sports fans crave in this country,” he said. “It is more intimate, both at the stadium, with fellow fans, and with the players and clubs.”

Brent Atema has no doubt the Outlaws have made a difference to the profile of supporters in the US.  Opposition from the established forces of televised sports still exists, but he believes the previously vocal critics in the mainstream media are losing their voice:

“Each day more people are realizing that football is here to stay and there is nothing the critics can do about it,” Atema suggested. “It is growing. It is growing rapidly. It is just a matter of time before the game is considered in the same level as the other American sports.”

That change may in part be driven by a growing awareness of football’s potential profitability and global reach. But, more importantly for the fans, it reflects a cultural change. The approach of the American Outlaws could have a much more profound and lasting impact in harnessing America’s interest in football than the rampant publicity of David Beckham could ever achieve.

Football is big business now, but the social aspect and the participation of the crowd sustain its appeal. A supporters group, such as the Outlaws, can share that experience with fans in a way that big-money advertising will never achieve.

By Michael Moruzzi

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona