Football in America was fringe culture, and its recent growth has meant a loss of eccentricity. Thankfully the Tacoma Stars keep the weird traditions alive.
I often forget how obscure football used to be in America. There was not a professional league for much of the 90s. It was an environment where current Bundesliga striker Bobby Wood was not even aware of the existence of the World Cup. Now I see kids walking around with Totti shirts, and my father occasionally asks me how Middlesbrough is doing.
This would have been absurd 20 years ago and even disappointing. The beauty of the soccer scene then was that it was so countercultural. It was an environment that attracted the contrarians, outsiders, and misfits. Growing up, the game was so far on the fringes of the sporting landscape, that there was only one club within a 150 mile radius of my home, the Chico Rooks.
The Rooks were a placeholder for amateur university players still pursuing the dream of turning professional. Like most clubs from that era, it has since folded and only exists as a memory, augmented by a few match day programmes and ticket stubs I had saved as a boy. The Tacoma Stars, an arena soccer team, could easily have followed the same fate. Its current existence is an exercise in chasing nostalgia.
Arena soccer, or mini-football, burst on to the scene in America in 1978. At the time it was summarized as “human pinball, a game of buzzers, flashing lights, disco music, galloping players and the ball rebounding haphazardly off the walls and around the turf”. The game both then and now is all about showmanship. Think of what innovations American advertising executives would make to football in order to make it more marketable. The result is arena soccer.
The game is more ice hockey than futsal in a number of ways. It is played with five outfield players and a goalkeeper on a walled field of artificial turf the size of a hockey rink. There are live substitutions, power plays, and one can play the ball off the boards. The setup ensures plenty of action to keep even the most restless viewer entertained.
Consequently, FIFA considers it too much of a bastardization to officially recognize it. It is strange to think that from 1984 until the league’s end in 1992, the heterodox arena soccer of the Major Indoor Soccer League was the highest level of football in the United States.
While the Stars disappointed for much of their tenure in the MISL, they reached their apogee during the 1986-87 season. Slavisa Zungul, once considered one of the best strikers in Europe before he defected to live the good life in America, performed in front of crowds of over 20,000 in Tacoma. 20,000 was an absurd attendance figure during the football’s wilderness years in America. The Stars made it to the final series that year but lost in heartbreaking fashion to a goal deep in overtime.
Famously, the Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies upon its release. As the story goes, everyone who bought it went out and formed a band. The Tacoma Stars might only have played in front of a few thousand in its first iteration, but the unforgettable experience and match-day atmosphere inspired a whole generation of football fans in the region.
When the Stars first folded in 1988 after posting losses of almost $9 million in five years, it only took a few days for a consortium of 28 “investors” to resurrect the club. This iteration of the Stars went belly up with the MISL in 1992. It was revived again in 2003, and competed in various amateur leagues until 2013. The 2013-2014 season was supposed to see the Stars professionalize and compete in a new division. However, the proposed league failed to attract enough clubs, and the Stars went on hiatus.
The 2014-2015 season was remarkable more for its front office wrangling than anything that happened on the turf. The Stars ownership group attempted to join the newly established Major Arena Soccer League, but local franchise rights were instead awarded to Dion Earl, a controversial figure in the Seattle football community.
Earl attempted to appropriate the Tacoma Stars name and legacy for his MASL franchise but was checked by Lane Smith, the owner of the Stars’ trademark. Earl instead branded his club as the Seattle Impact.
A controversy was never far away, however. First, the coaching staff resigned over unpaid wages in preseason. Following reports of sexual assault, the dance team disbanded after several members quit. 22 players resigned after the third game of the season in protest over Earl’s leadership.
The Impact limped on for a few more months before Earl sold the failing franchise to Smith, who completed the remaining fixtures of the 2014-2015 as the Tacoma Stars. The next season saw the Stars’ first full season in MASL. They qualified for the post-season play-offs for the Ron Newman Cup, but fell at the first hurdle.
The Stars narrowly failed to make the playoffs in the 2016-2017 season, but the fans and the good times were back. Indeed, the Stars even posted a few full houses at the 6,500 capacity ShoWare Center in Kent. The location of the stadium is interesting. It is 15 miles from Tacoma, but situated in the middle of the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area.
The club has not lost its Tacoman roots but needs the larger Seattle market and its overpaid tech workers. Tacoma, just 30 miles to the south, is still recovering from the slow death of its heavy industries. It is interesting to note that the peak of the Stars’ popularity in the late 1980s coincided with Tacoma’s nadir as the city dealt with an epidemic of drugs and gang violence.
Tacomans readily identify as – and root for – the underdog. Stars fans regularly chant “Two Five Three”, their telephone code prefix, as a badge of honor. It is their differentiation from those with a more glamorous Seattle prefix. Neko Case, in her ode to her hometown – “Thrice All American” – sang about Tacoma as a “sour and used up old place”, but she still cannot resist its hopefulness and the thrill of its history. That same hopefulness and nostalgia is what keeps the Stars going.
Despite the gritty reputation of the area, one is immediately struck by the family-friendly nature of the club. Children play soccer outside the ShoWare Center, dodging cars and sending long passes to their dads. These fathers wear the uniform of most men my age in the Pacific Northwest: high performance rain jackets, beards, and a growing craft beer belly; their soft touches on receiving the passes from their children betray a youth spent as outliers, playing a fringe sport. There is a curious lack of swearing and none of the posturing one sees at fully professional matches. American fans often incorporate European supporter culture indiscriminately with the zeal of new converts. There is none of that at the ShoWare.
A haze often hovers over the pitch as the match begins. The smoke does not come from ultras with illicit flares, but from a fog machine employed over-enthusiastically. It occasionally leads to delayed kickoffs. The whole experience is more Will Farrell’s Semipro than Elijah Wood’s Green Street Hooligans.
It is hard to take matches too seriously by design. Harley-Davidsons careen around the pitch to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” before the match. The master of ceremonies runs around like a manic Wes Anderson in his blue velvet blazer. Wes Anderson also springs to mind with the DJ’s choice of music for the event: John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!” and Bob Dylan’s “Wigwam.” The whimsy of the hype music stands in stark contrast to what you’ll hear spun at MLS or NBA games – driving bass lines that undergird whatever song was featured on the latest Beats By Dre commercial.
Every time the Stars score a goal, John Williams’ Star Wars theme blasts. Children run to the front to catch a souvenir football thrown into the crowd by the goalscorer. Involuntary memory transports me back to a youth spent chasing foul balls with other children at baseball games on warm summer nights.
Family ties are important for the Stars. One of the key marketing strategies is to build the team from local players to ensure local interest. The Stars’ captain, Joey Gjertsen, like most of the roster, is homegrown. While playing for the Montreal Impact, his teammates called him “Tacoma.” After a long and much-traveled professional career, he returned home. He took it upon himself to pass on to the current Stars players the stories and traditions from his time as a supporter during the club’s heyday in the late 80s. The Gjertsen family name also features on the advertising hoarding around the arena. It is clear how much it means to the captain to keep this legacy alive.
Another player who provided that link to the countercultural football of the past is Elliot Fauske. Fauske sports an 18 inch mohawk firmly cemented into place and featured prominently in the club’s promotional materials, especially their award winning “What A Feelin‘” campaign. His showmanship veers more toward professional wrestling than professional football. He often goes into character as “the Mohican Warrior” and performs apocalyptic poetry to urge the crowd to get behind the team. This sort of club themed performance art is not new to American soccer culture. The first matches I attended featured characters like Krazy George, who were corny as hell but always elicited a smile and a cheer.
In the last verse of “Thrice All-American”, Neko Case acknowledges gentrification and big-box stores creeping into her hometown. She finishes though by singing: “That’s how you like it – away from the world…I hope they don’t find you, Tacoma.” I know the feeling. I encounter it when I go to a Seattle Sounders game as one of the 45,600 attendees. It is incredible to look out over the stadium and see a visual representation of the growth of the game in America.
There is a sadness in that moment too. A sadness for the loss of eccentricity and flat-out weirdness of football in America. Thankfully for old sad bastards like me, the Tacoma Stars survive. And the price of admission into the football of my youth is pretty reasonable.