When it comes to hearing what MLS supporters have to say, goalkeepers are a captive audience.
While the field players dart up and down the pitch, goalkeepers generally hold down the fort at the ends, often just feet from the stands where the most vocal supporters are usually located.
“I get it pretty much everywhere because I’m close to the fans,” Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “You kind of zone it out and just play your game.”
That’s the advice from Sounders goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra. But while not reacting is one thing, not hearing is another. And Sounders goalkeepers have heard enough to note some market-by-market trends.
For all the intensity of the Cascadia rivalry, Portland’s famed Timbers Army got points for cleverness. MLS newcomer New York City fans were credited for knowing the game. Veteran Sounders reserve keeper Troy Perkins appreciates the humor from the stands at Kansas City’s Sporting Park. Switzerland native Frei said some places even heckle him in Swiss German.
And there’s one market where the opinions unite.
“Believe it or not, the meanest place has been Salt Lake,” Frei said. “I was very surprised with that.”
That was echoed by some Sounders coaches and field players, and very much so by Perkins.
“The worst is Salt Lake,” he said. “I actually had to tell a security guard he’d better grab me before I went into the stands because of some of the things they were saying.”
It’s a familiar issue to Sounders FC general manager Garth Lagerwey, who spent seven seasons at Real Salt Lake before moving to Seattle in January.
“Utah itself is a very red state,” he said. “(But the Salt Lake City) counterculture sometimes manifests itself as anti the Mormon Church, and the Mormon Church, of course, discourages obscenity and vulgarity, as common society does. If I had to suppose, it’s folks that have something to say, and that’s the one point in their lives where they got to say it. There’s a little bit of anti-religious zealotry, if you can have such a thing.”
Lagerwey also notes a factor less societal and more practical: The architecture of Rio Tinto Stadium places seating sections tight along the end lines. That’s very different from BC Place in Vancouver — where the Sounders won on Saturday, 2-0 — where there is a large gap in the seating bowl directly behind the goals.
Starfire Sports Stadium, which the Sounders use for U.S. Open Cup and the Sounders 2 USL team, has no permanent end-line seating. However, there is another factor that mitigates that.
“The opposing team can often be so close to the beer garden there,” said Tom Conquergood, vice president of the Gorilla FC supporters group. “And generally what we try to do is keep yelling the commands that the goalkeeper is giving to his defense, over and over again, so it gets confusing.”
Frei and Perkins each mentioned alcohol’s role in what they hear from the stands. But the type of heckling Conquergood mentioned isn’t the kind that draws complaints from most players — or the league office.
Lagerwey mentioned that organized chants that include profanity do get the attention of MLS commissioner Don Garber — especially on nationally televised games.
Still, Lagerwey is a relative newcomer to Seattle soccer culture, and he has generally avoided the role of language police. One reason is because Sounders supporters have formalized ways of policing themselves.
“There’s an ECS security team that’s present for the march, that’s present for every match,” said Tom Biro of Emerald City Supporters. “If somebody says, ‘Hey, I’m having a problem,’ or somebody’s saying something specific, or something racist or whatever that may be, we absolutely tell people to flag one of the security folks. ... We try to be as vigilant as possible about that sort of thing: It’s not something we tolerate.”
Regardless of what is being yelled, Dutra’s advice to his keepers is the same: Tune it out.
“You just have to say, ‘Narrow your focus. Just worry about what you’re doing. Don’t give them anything,’ ” Dutra said. “As you get older, then you begin to talk with them, be friends with them or whatnot.”
Both Seattle keepers are veterans: Frei in his seventh MLS season, Perkins in his 10th. However, both say they don’t engage much. When they do, they pick their spots.
“Sometimes the ball will go out of bounds, and if you’re up you can always turn around and give them a little cheeky smile or you just nod your head like you know what they’re saying,” Perkins said. “But in general, you just ignore them.”
Frei said the best time is after the final whistle, when the scoreboard already has had the last word.
“You win the game and you can just turn around and just pump your fist,” he said. “They’ve got no response to that: You just won the game and beat them. That’s usually pretty sweet.”