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Pittsburgh soccer fans travel to cheer foreign teams

Michael Wright (left), Tony Jamie (third from right) join members of a Pittsburgh-based fan club of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club prior to a game in Chicago.  Submitted photo: Michael Wright
Michael Wright (left), Tony Jamie (third from right) join members of a Pittsburgh-based fan club of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club prior to a game in Chicago.
Submitted photo: Michael Wright

By Travis Hefner, Point Park News Service:

Pittsburgh’s Dave Trainer and other Premier League soccer fans turned a New York City block into an Arsenal Football Club street party.

Choosing to stay at the same hotel as his beloved Arsenal FC in New York gave Evan Bieganski the chance to meet his heroes.

In Chicago between Tottenham Hotspur and Chicago Fire, Pittsburgh resident and London expatriate Tony Jamie felt at home.

British expatriates and the growing American fan base who have adopted an overseas team have for years adjusted their schedules in order to watch games live on television. And, now with many teams coming to America — if only for exhibitions — fans are going to great lengths just to see their team in person for 90 minutes.

Over the past year, 35 soccer games in the United States drew crowds of more than 40,000, including one that was attended by more than 100,000. Many of these are exhibition games for European professional teams. The rise of soccer in America has given fans packed into niche bars such as Pittsburgh’s Piper’s Pub more chances to feed their ravenous appetite to see their teams live.

One such fan, Dave Trainer, traveled to New York City and met with fans of Arsenal FC from around the country.

“I’ve never seen so many Gooners in one place,” Trainer said.

Trainer is one such “Gooner,” the nickname given to the supporters of Arsenal FC, based off of a team name “Gunners.” Traveling from Pittsburgh to New York City, Trainer and other “Gooners” turned a block into a street party. Arsenal supporters packed three bars on Manhattan, including Arsenal stronghold The Blind Pig. So many fans showed up, they spilled out onto the street.

Evan Bieganski (center) poses with friends prior to a game between New York Red Bulls and Arsenal Football Club. Submitted photo: Evan Bieganski
Evan Bieganski (center) poses with friends prior to a game between New York Red Bulls and Arsenal Football Club.
Submitted photo: Evan Bieganski

“They turned away normal Friday business and said, ‘Arsenal fans come here,'” Trainer said.

Trainer spoke of the catharsis for Arsenal fans. With so many of them in one place, everything was about Arsenal FC and everything was full of happiness.

He described video highlights from Arsenal’s “Invincible” year, a season in which they did not lose in the league, being shown on wall-sized projection screens outside.

“People were screaming for goals that happened over a decade ago like it happened live,” he said.

Meeting and reveling in that shared passion for their team took precedence over the game itself for Trainer, where Arsenal lost 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls.

“The game itself was not as big an experience as the night before,” he said.

Like Trainer, from the moment Arsenal’s visit to the United States was announced, Bieganski knew had had to go.

“That night we were like, ‘We have to go, no matter,'” Bieganski said describing planning with his friends who drove to New York for the game.

When researching where to stay, Bieganski checked hotels where teams of Major League Soccer, a domestic league that plays in the United States and Canada, often stayed.

“If MLS teams stay there, why wouldn’t a Premier League one? It just so happened (Arsenal) was staying there too,” he said.

After arriving at the New York City hotel, Bieganski and his friends sat mere feet away from a team they idolized. Bieganski and his friends thought better about approaching the team after seeing a few other people removed from the hotel for doing it. However, security relaxed when the team left the hotel for a morning walk. Bieganski and his friends took their chance to meet the team.

Bieganski chatted with team members as they took a stroll in New York City.

“They were wearing sport jackets and flip flops, just walking down the street,” he said.

Bieganski thanked Santi Cazorla, a Spanish attacking midfielder who plays for Arsenal, for his play during the team’s FA Cup win the previous year.

“The highlight of the trip was that interaction,” Bieganski said.

While many games are played in New York City, the international teams also travel to play in other cities such as Chicago. And fans will travel for those games too.

Michael Wright and Tony Jamie, supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, another London-based team, and a large part of Pittsburgh’s fan club for the team, Pittsburgh Spurs, traveled to Chicago to see their team play, living up to the team’s motto: “To dare is to do.”

“There was nothing that was going to stop me from doing it,” Wright said.

It paid off, especially when they grabbed incredible tickets.

“I was like 50 feet away,” Wright said.

Quite a difference from the 3,713 miles usually separating him from his team.

Jamie, a London expatriate now living in Pittsburgh, is a long-time veteran supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Despite being so far from that city, he was moved by the number of Tottenham Hotspur fans that turned up in Chicago, most of them American.

“It almost brought a tear to my face seeing so many young people support the team I love,” he said.

Jamie lauded this group of new young fans, who sang and chanted for Tottenham Hotspur the entire match. Classic hits included a Tottenham Hotspur rendition of “When the Spurs go marching in!” and a simple chant “Come on you Spurs!”

“The rooting section I was in was just so loud. I’ve never actually been in anything like that for Tottenham,” added Wright.

Unfortunately for these fans, their beloved teams have returned to Britain and are currently involved in their regular season in the Premier League. However, while these fans are once again waking up at early hours to watch games on television, they’d jump at the chance to go back in a heartbeat.

“If it happened again next year, I’d be doing it again,” Wright said.

Bobby Miller took it a step further. A supporter of West Ham United, Miller would go to great lengths to see his team in America.

“If I had enough notice, I’d go anywhere in the continental United States,” he said.

Miller laughed, adding that the only consequence that would stop him from going would be the prospect of homelessness from overspending.

For Miller or the fans who have traveled for events with their team, their passion is undeniable. For them, however, the passion extends beyond the soccer field to the people they share it with.

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