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The inside story of how Real Salt Lake’s traditionally divided supporters groups have finally united under one flag

An assist from coach Mike Petke and RSL’s front office helped nudge the sometimes fractious bands together

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans in the south end zone cheer for Real Salt Lake, in MLS soccer action at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday, March 9, 2019.

In the moments before Real Salt Lake kicked off its 2019 home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps, after the Unity Gospel Choir finished singing the national anthems for the United States and Canada, a group of fans behind the south goal of Rio Tinto Stadium made their way down the stairs.

Each of them held a section of a giant piece of painted cloth. With each step, what they held slowly revealed itself to be a tifo, which is any type of visual display showing support for a soccer team. RSL’s tifo spanned nearly the entirety of the seats on the south end of the stadium. On it read, “We are The Riot” in blue and “Estamos Unidos” (We are United) in red.

The moment marked the first time RSL’s many supporters groups united under one flag. The new contingent calls itself The Riot. It was such a milestone that the team pointed it out in a pregame email sent to media.

It also marked the potential end of years in which the six official RSL supporters groups — Riot Brigade, Salt City United, La Barra Real, Rogue Cavaliers Brigade, Section 26 and Section 35 — each sang their own chants, on their own time, in their own way. Previous attempts to band together had failed.

The divided loyalties at RSL games have been an anomaly in MLS, where most teams typically have one or two dominant supporters groups backing them at home games — think the Timbers Army in Portland — who are united and coordinated in terms of chants and activities. RSL’s half-dozen groups, meanwhile, have been marked as much by rivalry as cohesion.

It took time, compromise, and even an assist from coach Mike Petke and the RSL front office. But these once-divided groups got it done, and finally feel like they’re on the right track.

“This is the most united I’ve seen them,” said Todd Nate, a leader of Riot Brigade.

A coach’s request

Talks to figure out somehow, some way to bring the supporters groups together were ongoing long before this season’s home opener. But it was during the offseason when those conversations started to hit a turning point of productivity.

Petke requested to meet with leaders of the the supporters groups to discuss what it would take to get them unified, and how he and the front office could help. Once he sat down with them, he gave what he called a presentation, detailing what he would like to see from the supporters and what kind of culture he wants to build for RSL home games.

“It was just an open conversation and I threw myself out there to say, ‘I’ll do what you guys need. Just let me know.’ But this is what I would like,” Petke said recently.

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That wasn’t all Petke did. He also offered to make players available for a short time after games to connect with supporters, and suggested a supporters group-only picnic organized by the team, said Thomas Welker, who represents Section 26 on the supporters groups’ leadership council.

The RSL higher-ups helped, too. They provided the supporters groups with the conference room for meetings, opened the stadium so the groups can hold chant practices, and facilitated a warehouse space where the tifo could be made, Welker said.

CJ Arsenault, vice president of RCB, said having Petke’s support was a motivating factor in getting the groups to come together.

“I think having him and the players invested in it and hearing from them that, ‘We want this, we appreciate when you guys do that,’ kind of gives us a little bit more incentive to do it and do it right,” Arsenault said, adding that it was “unprecedented” for an RSL coach to get involved as Petke did.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Morgan Law waves a flag as he cheers for Real Salt Lake, in MLS soccer action at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday, March 9, 2019.

A strenuous past

This new venture is actually not very new at all. There have been several attempts over the years to unite the supporters groups, but all of them quickly fizzled out. At one point, they were called the Royal Army.

But concerns about individual supporters groups losing their identities, coupled with the feeling that RSL’s front office was forcing them to unite instead letting that happen organically, were the main sticking points that made joining as one group difficult, Arsenault said.

Another snag was merely the manner in which each group supports the team. The groups on the south end cheer loudly, play their instruments even louder, and do it for practically the entire 90 minutes.

The other two groups — Section 26 and 35 — however, are made up of more mild-mannered fans. They cheer, and some are loud. But they also like to sit and watch the game with their friends and family.

Welker said that in years past, no one group wanted to be in led in chants by another, and those in the south end took the position that they were going to do their chants and others could join if they wanted.

But all of those hangups seemed to have gone by the wayside. The groups are learning each other’s chants in both English and Spanish, picking specific chants for specific points in the game, and have plans to make different tifos throughout the season.

“Now people have realized that we don’t do any good supporting the team separately,” Welker said. “We’re much better off when we’re united and supporting together. I think people are realizing that and I think it’s making a big difference.”

A hopeful future

After RSL beat Vancouver, the team, along with its supporters, revealed a new tradition that will occur after every home win. Kyle Beckerman, who was named Man of the Match by Petke, planted a team flag in front of the south goal in honor of when former RSL defender Brian Dunseth did it after scoring a goal that marked the franchise’s first-ever win back in 2005.

That idea came about through deliberation among the supporters group council, which wanted a celebration unique to the club. Someone brought up Dunseth’s goal celebration, and it stuck.

“That was the best idea that came up,” Arsenault said. “It’s go all the way back to the beginning. Everyone loved that so let’s just keep it rolling.”

The new tradition provides a glimpse of what’s to come. But no one really knows how sustainable the united front will be. However, there are different levels of optimism around the supporters groups.

“I guess we’ll see,” Nate said when asked if the groups can sustain their newfound unity. “I hope so. I think that’s what everybody wants. I think people just have to put their egos aside and realize we’re here for Real.”

Even members of the team are encouraged. Corey Baird said after the Vancouver game that he liked the energy the south-end supporters displayed and called it “infectious.” Petke said recently that the supporters are an extension of the team, and having them united was “key” for RSL and the stadium’s environment.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but I think tonight was a good sign,” Petke said after the Vancouver game. “I think the environment tonight was pretty damn good down there.”

Jeremy Johnson, a leader of Salt City United, said the groups joining forces will also encourage casual fans to become supporters of RSL.

“We just need to come over as one umbrella group so it’s more inviting, get more people to go,” Johnson said. “So that’s why we’re making such a big deal about it.”

But Arsenault’s optimism was a little more measured. He said he has seen previous attempts to join the supporters groups falter even before this point of the current season. But he admitted that he senses a different vibe with this attempt.

“This time around feels better than the last couple of years,” Arsenault said. “But at the same, time I’ve seen how quick it can turn. So I’m cautiously optimistic this time.”

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