I've been to about 10 games this season. I've watched the Sounders play in Starfire, enjoyed the vantage point from the press box, sat close enough to the field to practically reach out and touch the players and even spent a day in the Brougham End with Gorilla FC. But I had never experienced what it was like to watch a game in the heart of GA with ECS.
That finally changed on Tuesday.
After failing in my attempt to experience GA during the Chivas USA match, I figured it would be good to give it another try in the CONCACAF Champions League match against Saprissa.
With just a tick over 11,000 in the house, I harbor no illusions that my experience was the standard GA one. For starters, I was able to walk into GA without the ushers even checking my tickets. Despite showing up just a few minutes before kickoff, I was also able to comfortably find a seat in Section 122 and even had room to put down my bag.
These are undoubtedly foreign concepts to anyone who usually fights for space in any of ECS's three sections, let alone the one right behind the south goal. On any given league match, there are many more people than the stated capacity in those sections and space is always at a premium. With 122 less than two-thirds full, I had plenty of room to stretch out and actually had to make some effort to have personal contact.
So take everything I say with whatever grains of salt you think they deserve.
All that said, I was thoroughly impressed with the energy and atmosphere ECS created in an otherwise mostly empty stadium for a match in which the Sounders were merely hoping to play spoilers.
From the first kick until the final whistle, no more than a few seconds passed when we weren't in full chant. I held my scarf over my head for much longer than I ever imagined I would, pogoed for the first time since my college days and left the stadium still feeling the rhythms of the drum.
Quite honestly, I was totally unprepared for the physical toll standing with ECS took on my body. I started the match wearing a beanie (knit-cap? touk? you know what i mean) and a light jacket, being as it is mid-October. A couple minutes in, I realized I needed to lose the cap. A few minutes after that, I shed the jacket. Giving your full 90 means something entirely different when you're in 122.
Not sure if it was because there were relatively few people there, but I was surprised at how nice everyone was. Even though I knew most of the words to most of the songs, I think it was pretty obvious I was a first-timer. That didn't stop anyone from throwing their arms around my shoulders during the pogo sessions and I was never made to feel self-conscious about lacking ECS regalia. I chatted up one random GA regular pregame and during halftime, felt totally welcomed and was encouraged to return.
Following the match was much less frustrating than I anticipated, too. Again, the crowd's lack of density probably aided in this, but the only significant action I felt I had a less than preferable view of was that play toward the end of the match where Mike Seamon may have been fouled in the box. I have yet to see a replay, so I'm going with my gut and proclaiming the lack of a call an absolute travesty.
Knowing what a third-rail any discussion of waving flags can be on this site, I'll just say I can better understand both sides of the argument. They definitely have a tendency to obstruct views, but I'm also sympathetic to the idea that they add to the atmosphere. I'll also request that this is one subject we steer away from in the comments since it has been hashed over so many times.
Maybe the most striking part about sitting with ECS was the relative decorum. I'm sure when matches mean more and there's more nervous energy in the stands it can be quite different, but at least on this day the group was very well behaved. At least two different couples brought their young children into the section. The kids seemed to love the energy and their parents -- obviously ECS members -- never expressed any particular concern over the language and behavior on display which was all pretty tame. I doubt this kind of thing will be happening during the upcoming playoff game, but that parents ever feel comfortable doing this is a testament to the environment created there.
ECS has done an amazing job at bringing supporter participation to heights I never thought I'd witness in MLS. The group doesn't deserve all the credit -- and I'm sure even they get tired of TV announcers drooling over them -- but it's impossible to deny what they bring is overwhelmingly positive. The capos and drummers might be the hardest working people in the stadium on any given day and I got a very real sense that many ECS members feel it is their duty to match the players' efforts. I know I came away feeling like I had just played a soccer match, not having watched one.
At a not-exactly-fit 32 years old, I'm embarrassed to say my body probably is not cut out for this kind of activity on a weekly basis. I do plan to do it again, though, and think this experience will affect the way I watch future matches. I don't think every fan should feel compelled to spend a day in ECS, but I can honestly say anyone who calls themselves a supporter should at least spend a match in Brougham End.