The Wash: ‘Developmental’ leagues and club supporters culture

The Wash: ‘Developmental’ leagues and club supporters culture

I’ve been wondering lately about developmental leagues and how they help or hinder the development of club culture and more specifically supporter cultures that surround clubs. In a sense, every league in the United States is a ‘developmental league,’ in that all players, even up to MLS, can still go further and bigger on an international stage. But I am mainly thinking about our clubs in the Premier Development League of the USL. How hard is it for supporters culture (a football lifeblood and an area that sets the sport apart) to spring up, grow and maintain momentum with sides whose stated or inferred goal is to prepare players for somewhere  and someone else?


The Wash is David Falk’s take on the world of soccer in The WA.

Read previous columns here.

The Kitsap Pumas are in the PDL, but they would love to not be limited to the eight players over the age of 23 that the league decrees. The Sounders U-23 are clearly in existence to guide players in the Sounders system with hopes one or two (DeAndre Yedlin) might stick in MLS. Washington Crossfire and the North Sound SeaWolves help college players stay sharp and fit over the summer.

These clubs play short 14-match seasons over barely three months a year. The Pumas add on a month of training matches and also come back over the winter for indoor soccer in the PASL.

Supporters culture exists in Kitsap where the Pumas don't openly wear the 'developmental' label.  (Jeff Halstead)
Supporters culture exists in Kitsap where the Pumas don’t openly wear the ‘developmental’ label. (Jeff Halstead)

Of these clubs, only the Kitsap Pumas have their own unique supporters culture. There are several groups that work together. Flags and specific chants, drums, picnics, etc. In other words, club culture enhanced by supporters culture. As I noted above, the Pumas are also the only Puget Sound PDL club that are trying to avoid the ‘development’ term built into their league’s name. Kitsap also pays its players a small stipend.

The Sounders U-23 have increased their attendance dramatically since they were once called Tacoma Tide FC. However, they still lack a dedicated, specific supporters group and culture. They struggle in terms of geography, aligning themselves with the general “South Sound.” They play at various venues, and sometimes the 253 or ECS will show for a match. Despite the fact this is not a “Seattle” club, the supporters sing “The Bluest Skies” and other Sounders MLS-related cheers.

Pumas supporters like to chide Sounders U-23's 'borrowing' of fans attached to the MLS club. (David Falk)
Pumas supporters like to chide Sounders U-23’s ‘borrowing’ of fans attached to the MLS club. (David Falk)

The SeaWolves and Crossfire remain on the outskirts of soccer fandom in the region.

How much of the the struggle the PDL has in drawing fans and seeing supporter culture blossom is due to the developmental nature of their rosters? Can fans get behind guys that are “in training?” Can it be a lasting, growing love affair? Is there a possibility of a ‘pub culture’ for these teams?

In Bellingham the Pacific Coast Soccer League Hammers draw bigger crowds than all the Puget Sound PDL clubs. They have a supporters culture, a pub culture and are free of the ‘developmental’ label. Sure, everyone knows the PCSL isn’t MLS, but it is also a league with local talent and stars who return yearly. The Hammers, in their second season, rely on names like Kellan Brown to build their fan base.

Bellingham United has a dedicated, club-specific group and supporter culture. (David Falk)
Bellingham United has a dedicated, club-specific group and supporter culture. (David Falk)

I’ve got more questions than answers when it comes to these things. Clearly I appreciate supporters culture and the difference it makes in the sport.  I wish we had more of that alongside these ‘player development’ sides. I like true football clubs, ones that exude that they are  fine (supportable) as-is, and that the players they roster are here for a right-here, right-now experience that is unique, important, and should be viewed as such. In other words, worthy of the kind of adoration that comes from supporters.

That is part of why I have hopes that the National Premier Soccer League will eventually catch on in our region. I see what is happening in Detroit, in Tulsa, in Chattanooga. These places are exploding with supporters culture that could also be happening in Tacoma, Everett, Wenatchee, Olympia, Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver…

The amazing support for NPSL's Detroit City FC (Facebook)
The amazing support for NPSL’s Detroit City FC (Facebook)
If it can happen in Tulsa (Athletic), then why not Spokane? (Facebook)
If it can happen in Tulsa (Athletics, NPSL), then why not Spokane? (Facebook)
Chattanooga is one of the top draws in the NPSL. (Facebook)
Chattanooga is one of the top draws in the NPSL. (Facebook)

Is it the label of being a developmental club in a developmental league that is holding the U-23’s, Crossfire and SeaWolves back from attracting passionate supporters? Does the characterization color fan opinion before they even enter a local stadium?

I suggest it is at least worth asking the question.

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23 thoughts on “The Wash: ‘Developmental’ leagues and club supporters culture

  1. Add: On the women’s soccer side of things the Sounders Women have the Jet City Aux and Reign FC have The Royal Guard.

  2. Tulsa has a history of soccer, winning the soccer bowl in 83. Myself and my friend Eric are both die hard Sounders fans, members of the heartland horde and make close away games whenever we can. We are trying to bring the passion and intensity that we love about the ECS. Its nice having a home town to support along with the Saunders.

  3. It’s not just Northern Guard (DCFC’s supporters), although they’re the most extreme example. In the NPSL’s Great Lakes Division, FC Buffalo’s supporters The Situation Room has been singing for four years now (For our city!), and AFC Cleveland have the 6th City Syndicate. Clearly something is in the water.

    1. I don’t mean to discount any of the other Great Lakes team’s supporter’s groups, but DCFC’s Northern Guard facebook page has almost 1000 more likes than The Situation Room and 6th City put together. I imagine that’s why they were the example brought up in this story.

  4. Just the fact that it’s designated as a developmental league, a team already has somewhat of a built-in stigma to work against, I think. Other than the Pumas (ex USL Sounders) and the MLS affiliated U23s, the independent teams really struggle to gain traction here in Puget Sound, an area that has so many spectator sports options year round, I feel. B’ham Hammers are doing well since there aren’t that many competition for sports dollars, that’s my speculation. It would be interesting to see how other PCSL teams in large markets do in terms of fan support and root culture in comparison to the Hammers.

    1. Not very well, from what I have been told. PCSL ‘crowds’ often number in the 50’s. Bellingham is at 864 per match right now.

  5. Yea it’s tough being a supporter in a developmental league because of the ‘Right here, Right now’ mentality. In essence the culture is surrounded by the club and not necessarily the players, as the turnover rate is extremely high. It’s hard to get a connection with the players. I find myself scrambling to find out who just scored the latest goal sometimes. But we stick to it. Like stated earlier, we’ve been doing this for 4 years. Local players now what to play for us because on the supporters culture. Fans now want to come to the game As they expect us to entertain as well. To steal this from DCFC’s Sargent Scary: “this is organic”. This is part of an Eco system. if you plant the seeds and sow the soil, you will grow. Cant wait to travel to the northwest for NPSL action.

  6. “Not very well, from what I have been told. PCSL ‘crowds’ often number in the 50′s.” That’s what I’d expect which is about the same as what North Sound Seawolves draw the past season and a half so far despite the club’s greater effort in promotion and community outreach at beginning of season.

    Srdan, once a team has an affiliation with a major league team, then it will do well generally as there tend to be trickle down effects from the “Brand.” In PDL NW, Sounders U23 & Timbers U23 draw larger number of fans to games and players would typically prefer playing for these teams with hope of climbing the ladder toward the major league.

    Look at even Sounders Women’s, despite being a second tier team, they typically equal if not top attendance by the first division Reign. This plays right into the brand equity in which the name Sounders FC is ranked 40th worldwide (going off on a tangent here)

  7. Very dissapointed that there were ZERO Timbers Army at the Pumas-Timbers U23 match Friday at Alder Creek Middle School in Milwaukie, OR Friday night. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the teen and ‘tween girls Timber fans in attendance did a great job at cheering for their team and stomping their feet and making noise. They were louder than the ECS members that were at the Pumas-Sounders U23 match at Curtis High at the end of May.

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