Soccer fans are known for their intensity and provincial tendencies, which can sometimes rub outsiders and opposing fans the wrong way. Witness, for example, the West Ham United contingent’s “We have more fans than you” chant as a brief thunderstorm drove fans from the stands during the second half of the RailHawks’ match Tuesday.
But judging by the sellout the crowd of 10,125 on hand for the 2-2 draw, the Carolina RailHawks are happy to keep the bandwagon doors open a little longer to help grow the area’s interest in the sport and the team. That message was conveyed explicitly in the team’s pregame fundraising partnership with LGBT advocates EqualityNC, and in the stands and around the stadium as the team’s die-hard supporters welcomed curious Anglophiles, casual soccer fans and West Ham supporters to WakeMed Soccer Park.
“We have members who were born two weeks ago and we have members in their 90s,” said Amy Garner, vice president of RailHawks supporters group Triangle Soccer Fanatics, which, along with the team, has taken a strong stand against House Bill 2. The law passed in March requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
“Inclusion is just part of our culture at TSF,” Garner said. “We have members in the LGBT community who are proud members of TSF, and they’ve thanked us personally for taking a stance and getting behind them on this.”
West Ham and RailHawks jerseys each comprised about a third of the match’s attendees, but they were joined by a variety of international jerseys – Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United – donned by those eager to simply show they belonged to the soccer community. Tuesday’s match, it appeared, was more a celebration of the growth of that community in the Triangle than a battle between the teams’ partisans.
The RailHawks briefly led after the English Premier League team conceded an own goal in the 13th minute, only to have the visitors’ star striker, Andy Carroll, assist on an equalizer in the 18th minute by Winston Reid.
It’s been a great atmosphere – all games are good, but this one’s been great.
Triangle Soccer Fanatics member Justin Mayo
Carroll flicked in a goal of his own two minutes later, and the Hammers took that 2-1 lead into halftime. The RailHawks’ second goal, in the 67th minute, was the result of a penalty kick awarded after a handball by West Ham defender Lewis Page in the 18-yard box.
“It’s been a great atmosphere – all games are good, but this one’s been great,” said Triangle Soccer Fanatics member Justin Mayo, who, at halftime, had just put down his cymbals. “It’s been so loud. We have some new people, but they pick up the chants pretty quickly.”
The Triangle Soccer Fanatics were joined on the south end of the stadium by the Oak City Supporters, another group of RailHawks fans that began as a Raleigh chapter of the American Outlaws, a supporters group for the U.S. national teams. At least from TSF’s perspective, the relationship between the two is a friendly one
“It’s good to have multiple supporters groups for the club to have multiple entries for different types of fans,” longtime TSF member Dave Warner said.
Some of the visiting fans apparently felt at home among the RailHawks, too. Danny Hardy, a lifelong West Ham fan who now lives in Greensboro, proposed to his girlfriend at halftime. He said he had no qualms about using an opposing team’s home field to pop the question.
“West Ham has been like my family since I’ve been able to walk,” said Hardy, who grew up in East London. “It just felt like the right time – her family’s here, my family’s here, and Carolina’s my home state now.”
The RailHawks are hoping the magic of hosting one of the world’s top clubs will be a similarly memorable and formative experience for younger Triangle soccer fans who might not have realized what their local team had to offer until a bigger name team drew them in. A recent ESPN poll revealed that soccer is now the country’s second-most popular sport among 12-24-year-olds.
Curt Johnson, the RailHawks’ president, has indicated the club is in talks with clubs of West Ham’s caliber and hopes it can host a similar match next season.
“I just like the fact that we have an owner that’s trying,” said TSF member Nicholas Eidsvaag, referring to new RailHawks owner Steve Malik. “He’s trying to think of all the things that need to happen to make it exciting so that people who come to watch West Ham will want to come back.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan