Salt Lake Till I Die

Photo: Jake Vivori

"Olé, olé olé olé, ReAL, Salt Lake!" repeats, increasing in volume on the south end of the Rio Tinto Stadium on a Saturday night. The stands are full—red, gold and blue are the colors of choice—except in Section 9 at ground level behind the south goal, where a menacing row of black-clad hooligans wave flags and lead chants over a banner printed "Salt Lake's Finest." As I watch from behind, their energy and rage fuels my adrenaline, and I can't help but join in. A familiar, overwhelming wave of thousands cheering erupts through the stands as the team jogs out onto the field, and I get goosebumps—the evidence of anticipation, expectation, nostalgia and, more so than anything else, pride. It's my first ReAL Salt Lake game alongside the infamous Salt City United supporter group, and I'm practically swooning with excitement.  

SCU was founded by President Trev Poulson and a group of his friends in 2009, spawned from the already established Rogue Cavaliers Brigade the same year a floundering RSL defeated the LA Galaxy and pushed through their underdog status to win the MLS Cup. The supporter group, loosely fashioned after Euro-style ultras, started more as a way to bring friends together than a deep-rooted passion for the sport, and has grown from 10 or so members to 50-plus. "Everybody in the original group, I've been friends with for years, decades," Poulson says. "I think liking soccer is one part of it. The friendship and the family of the group . I know I can count on anyone here." 
I used to walk in on my grandpa in Spain listening to the radio announcer speed through ReAL Madrid games like an auctioneer, which is why I'm here with SCU—I detest American sports fans, but the culture behind Euro athletics appeals to my self-awareness. My parents have told me stories about people dying in riots at soccer games in Spain and I've seen Green Street Hooligans—soccer culture outside of the United States exceeds the intensity and fan frenzy of any NFL, NBA or MLB sports fanatics. In Spain and the UK, recognized gangs sprout up around local teams whose sole purpose is to verbally and physically assault the opposing team and their supporters. I also go into this experience knowing that most of SCU's members spawn from Salt Lake's controversial hardcore past, so I join the tailgating festivities expecting to have a Hunter S. Thompson experience among straight edge thugs. The group is definitely intimidating, even before they start foaming at the mouth during a match. The tailgating lot is just a short walk from the Rio Tinto Stadium, and in no time, it's filled with people setting up canopies and tables decked in ReAL colors. Our group is a patch of black. Most wear Salt City United printed gear only available to official members—T-shirts, jerseys, jackets and scarves—ominous "Wreck Everything" and "Salt Lake Till I Die" slogans abound, tattoos aplenty. "The Rio Tinto is a family friendly place," says Alex Davis, one of the SCU organizers. "A lot of people just don't like us. We have tattoos, we're loud and we're drinking …" But it's the pre-gaming that loosens me up and completely changes my initial perception of the group. 
As SLUG photographer Jake Vivori and I warily approach the SCU camp and introduce ourselves, we're made to feel welcome. Vegan food and beer is offered, and most seem eager to explain the complicated league rules to me, show off their RSL tattoos and brag about away-game conquests against their ultimate rival, the Colorado Rapids. They're not the hardline hooligans I was prepared for. Like any good suburban kid, many of them played soccer through Parks and Rec. as youngsters, but once adolescence kicks in, our all-American society deems soccer a sport for Third World pansies and dropouts. Already part of the counter-culture through their hardcore, vegan and straight edge ties, the members of SCU see this as an extension of that rebellion against the conservative norm, and another way to join together for a cause expressed parallel to their adolescence. "[Soccer] is off the beaten path. People have preconceived notions of football fans, baseball fans, basketball fans. This happened to be something that, when we started going to it, we could get really involved in a lot more," says Poulson. 
Of course, everyone's usually on their best behavior when there's "media" lurking, but they seem genuine and relaxed, which was surprising, considering the fraternity-style initiation process they detailed, but asked to keep "off the record." Though some may deem their exclusivity as pretentious and uninviting, it's what makes SCU a united force to be reckoned with, and leaders among the other supporter groups—and they're not even official. Unlike La Barra, RCB and the Royal Army (of which Poulson is also the founder and President, unbeknownst to many), Salt City United have managed to maintain supporter group privileges without submitting to the front offices. “They tried to tell us, ‘You have to be an official sports group—you have to submit a member list of every member you have to get these benefits,’” says Poulson, who declined after putting the decision up for a group vote, which is how all decisions are made. “It’s not like we’re doing anything illegal, but the spirit of the supporters culture [asserts that] we control our own section and do what we want.” As such, their relationship with the front office is one of compromises. Poulson maintains constant communication and good standing with the head of ticketing, fan relations and stadium operations in order to keep control over Section 9 of the stadium, which includes 8 rows and 22 seats, though tickets in that section are sold as general admission—there’s no sitting down to eat hot dogs in Section 9. SCU receives incentives awarded to official groups such as field passes, discounted tickets and parking passes in exchange for their cooperation and acquiescence in certain matters brought up to Poulson at regular meetings. One of the compromises that comes up on a regular basis deals with the group’s chants—for obvious reasons. 
After drinking and socializing at the vegan barbecue, the group often marches into the stadium together waving large, black flags and chanting, setting the threatening tone for what's to come. I stand in the bleachers behind the SCU members in Section 9, and immediately, the group starts taunting the players: “You fucking cunt! Look at you, shorty! You make less than everyone on your team!” which is about the time the balls start flying into the stands, only fueling the profanity and insults. It's amusing, but I'm also impressed by the effect these guys have on the players. This kind of behavior isn't appropriate at any other sporting event, but here, it's part of the Euro culture SCU adopts. In exchange for less profanity (they were begged by the offices to end their "We fucked your grandma" chant after it spread and became loud enough to be heard through TV broadcasting), they're given more control over their section, and some of the perks and privileges of the official supporter groups. However unofficial, it's obvious that they are the hype-people of the stadium. As I watch, the other groups around them try to involve SCU in their own chants, knowing the power and energy behind their voices, and BJ Viehl, SCU's Capo (and SLUG designer) is able to lead them in some of their own. Poulson explains this to me, saying, "We're so passionate about it, and not saying the other groups aren't passionate, but sometimes they need an extra oomph. I'm pretty strict with [SCU members]. I tell them, 'Hey, if you're sitting up front, chant. It's part of becoming a member. We don't want someone who's going to sit four rows back and watch the game while eating a hot dog."
Soccer is truly a sport run by the fans. There are no cheerleaders or sexy halftime dancers. The players, though professional athletes, make a fraction of what the most invaluable player in the NFL pulls in. The goals are few and far between, giving them more weight and expectation. Viehl explains to me that goals made at away games are worth more in the playoffs—home advantage is a big deal, and it's because of the hype power behind the fans. "[The ReAL players] have told us how much the support means to them," says Poulson. "There's nothing worse, I can imagine, than to be on the field when you're a goal down and having people booing you." Some of the players even have special SCU gear made just for them, and hang out with the group outside of the stadium, giving them signed balls and jerseys for raffles and fundraisers. "We're supporters for them, but they're also supporters for us," says Davis, who tells me the players jump into their arms after some of the matches. "It's really gross, actually. They're sweaty," she says.
Because of the fraternal nature of the hardcore community most of the group has grown out of, and the "macho" attitude that permeates any sports culture, I'm curious about the women in the group. There are less than 10 in attendance, and 99-percent of them are attached to an SCU member. However, I don't feel that awkward, intruding feeling that always made me uncomfortable at hardcore shows as I watch the guys AND girls pile on top of each other in the first two rows. "It's fun for us, because the men do get rowdy and crazy, but they also hold their girls up higher," says Davis, who is also Poulson's significant other, the two re-introduced at an RSL game. "It's never like, 'Oh, I want to go dance in the pit, so you can go stand on the outside so you don't get hurt. It doesn't make us feel out of place." Poulson's 10-year-old son and her are actually working to write PG versions of the chants so the kids in attendance can also join in on the fun.
The family, friendships, energy and all-around positive attitude of Salt City United, once you get past the intimidation, is definitely appealing as I look down at the group from my perch a row back. A chant starts up that soon becomes my favorite: "I'm Salt Lake till I die. I'm Salt Lake till I die. I know I am, I'm sure I am. I'm Salt Lake till I die." This is really why I'm here. As a kid, my family moved around a lot—across the ocean and across the state. My identity resides in this liminal space, not really belonging in one place or another. It's lonely, to feel no allegiance and to be claimed by none. Salt Lake is the first place I don't hesitate to call home—the only place I like to brag about. That's what these chants feel like, and what I think Salt City United means to a lot of its members: It's a place of belonging, where they come together with friends and family to boast about their hometown. Though some call it a vice, pride, but it's a valuable measure of self. I'm Salt Lake till I die—goosebumps galore.
You can find more information about Salt City United along with recordings of their chants on their website: Go to for a schedule of upcoming matches.
Photo: Jake Vivori Photo: Jake Vivori Photo: Jake Vivori Real Salt Lake's loyal supporter group, Salt City United, bring the ruckus to Section 9 at the Rio Tinto Stadium. Photo: Jake Vivori