By Brian Quarstad/ Special to NASL.com
It’s moments before the kickoff of the inaugural NASL Championship in 2011. The brand new Soccer Bowl trophy sits atop its display stand at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine, Minnesota, waiting for one of two teams to claim it. It’s the largest crowd of the season in Minnesota, and the NSC Minnesota Stars are an unlikely team. They are league-owned and in phoenix-like fashion grew out of the ashes of the Minnesota Thunder, a mainstay of 2nd division pro soccer since 1995. Nearly all of the 4,511 fans have taken their seats - except for the Dark Clouds, Minnesota’s soccer supporters section.
As Minnesota’s captain Kyle Altman approached the tunnel that leads from the locker rooms to the field, he could hear the noise. It was loud. Now that he was standing with the other players in the tunnel, his eyes swept the east side of the stadium. He viewed something he’d never seen since joining the team in 2008.
“All you can see from in the tunnel are the east stands and the Dark Clouds,” said Altman in a 2012 interview. “I’m looking across the field and it’s the biggest section of Dark Clouds I’d seen since I had been here. You could feel the energy – the electricity; the flags are waving the streamers are going and as you walk out onto the field someone lit smoke bombs and it was just this great, great atmosphere.”
Many estimated the Dark Clouds to number well over 300 that night - the biggest section of supporters they’d ever amassed. With the help of the Dark Clouds, the Stars went on to win the home leg of the match 3-1. And as had become a tradition that year, the players raced over to the supporters section after the win and sang Wonderwall as a thank you.
Minnesota won the 2011 NASL Championship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on a cool and rainy night just one week later. As to be expected, the Dark Clouds had a good contingent of traveling supporters who flew to Florida on short notice to support their beloved team. They weren't disappointed. Just as soggy as the team they were cheering, they shared moments of sheer joy with the Minnesota players who naturally included them in their on-field and post match celebrations.
In soccer, the teams supporters are known as the 12th man. That couldn’t be any more true of the Dark Clouds, who now support Minnesota’s newly named NASL team, Minnesota United FC.
But things have not always been smooth sailing for the Dark Clouds. While much attention has been given recently to the NASL’s newer supporters groups like the Brickyard Battalion with a brand new team and a new era of soccer in Indianapolis, or the Crocketteers, also with a new team in San Antonio and a sparkling new soccer-specific stadium on the horizon, the Dark Clouds have endured through almost a polar opposite. They’ve had a team to support for 24 years, but in the last 10 years they’ve seen three venue changes, four team names, five logo changes and six different owners. Of those past 9 years, many have been spent wondering if their team, whatever incarnation it was in that year, would survive for another season.
The Dark Clouds, like pro soccer in Minnesota, are survivors. And not only have they survived they’ve used the adversity and gotten stronger.
“If you look at all the changes, the one thing that has stayed consistent through the years is the Dark Clouds,” said Djorn Buchholz, VP of Sporting Operations. Except for one year in Austin, Texas in 2010, Buchholz has been with Minnesota’s pro soccer teams since 2004.
“It’s through the Dark Clouds’ consistency and perseverance that we are here today. I really believe that. No matter what version of the team was there, they stuck together and that’s been absolutely priceless.”
The Dark Clouds got their start when the Thunder left the National Sports Center in 2004 for the smaller, more intimate confines of a high school stadium in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota, called James Griffin. It’s a very narrow field with artificial turf and football lines. So narrow the team had to get US Soccer approval to play official D2 matches there. The Dark Clouds quickly coined their new venue “The Jimmy.”
While the NSC had a far superior field, the seats at “The Jimmy” were much closer to the playing surface and fans looked just 70 yards across the field to see other supporters cheering on their team. It was there that the Dark Clouds started to gain momentum.
According to 42-year-old Andy Wattenhofer, one of the founders of the Dark Clouds, the switch in venues was the catalyst for the supporters group.
“Without the familiar surroundings of the NSC we started reorganizing,” said Wattenhofer. “Four of us congregated on one side of the stadium and there were four people on the other side doing the same thing. We sort of looked at each other and decided, nonverbally, that sitting behind the opposing team bench made the most sense. It was really that simple.”
Anthony de Sam Lazaro first started attending Thunder matches in high school in the late 90s. He remembers a group of supporters at the NSC Stadium who used to be called the Thunderheads and would sit high in the stands with no shirts. They were perhaps the first semi-organized supporters section. However, de Sam Lazaro preferred to stand behind a short cyclone fence which had been set up to protect the field and work as dasher boards. There, he and a handful of other fans started to congregate to harass opposing players, particularly goalkeepers, and cheer for his own team.
“My recollection is it’s always been a pretty even split between positive support for our teams and heckling the opposition which we’ve always tried to do by being clever or funny and getting a rise out of players,” de Sam Lazaro said.
de Sam Lazaro explained that he met Wattenhofer and a few other soccer supporters like Bruce McGuire, another founder of the Dark Clouds, through an internet discussion board. The group would get together to watch US Men’s National Team matches and through that they encouraged him to come and to join in supporting the Thunder.
McGuire had a friend who created simple two-tone cartoon-like drawings of clouds. He took one of those images and turned it into a small button that he distributed to his friends at games. Wattenhofer decided that the black cloud on a dark gray background was a good rallying symbol for Thunder supporters and purchased some material to create a flag. Dark Clouds supporters and sisters Amy and Analissa Fleischhacker, along with their mother, Cherie, created a large 9’ x 5’ two-sided flag to Wattenhofer’s specifications, replicating the cloud on McGuire’s button.
They started flying that flag at matches and people soon knew where the supporters were, for good and bad, recalls Wattenhofer. Soccer fans in Minnesota were still not used to the idea of supporter sections, complete with songs, chants, jeers, clever teasing and an occasional smoke bomb or two.
“People would call the Thunder front office and complain, saying, those Dark Clouds people - I don’t like them, they’ve got a bad attitude,” laughed Wattenhofer. “For a while we’d deny that name and said we don’t know who you’re talking about? But eventually it just sort of stuck and it’s the name we took for our supporters group.”
de Sam Lazaro relays a very similar story but also recalls a base drum which also signaled to supporters to come and join them. That very same drum, owned by another one of the founding members, Neal Logan, was endearingly named Ludwig. The drum is still used today after a major refurbishment a couple of years ago due to the wear and tear of many a different drummer and countless matches. In fact, Logan says Ludwig has been to almost every Minnesota pro soccer home match since 2004, including the 2011 NASL final in Fort Lauderdale and the 2012 final in Tampa.
In 2008, the team was planning on playing at James Griffin for another season. But after two home matches the Thunder suddenly announced they were dropping their urban marketing campaign and moving 20 miles north to the suburbs of Blaine, Minn., where the NSC Stadium would be remodeled. It was a surprise announcement and one that was about to set the Dark Clouds into a spin.
The team moved to Blaine and played a game with some stands removed, and part of the field graded up. They played several more matches on the exhibition field adjacent to the larger stadium that had no seating. Finally, they moved into the newly revamped stadium. The Dark Clouds, who had often grown to numbers of 100 to 200 per game in St. Paul, were now struggling to find their place again. They moved to four different locations in the stadium trying to find the spot that made the most sense.
To make matters worse, the very popular NSC beer garden was built in 2009 and many of the supporters gravitated there. Eventually the numbers dropped with some games only having a dozen or so Dark Clouds in the same spot. With the supporters scattered throughout the stadium, there was no large contingent to formulate the energy that supporters sections create.
Somewhere between 2010 and 2011, Wattenhofer along with a few others thought that perhaps the best place for the supporters was across the field from the main grandstands and away from the opposing benches or either goal. Others in the group felt that the separation from families and those who didn’t want to deal with flares and smoke bombs might be a good idea along with the notion that the general public that attends matches might actually appreciate the Dark Clouds more if they could hear them from across the field where the sound would carry directly across to the main grandstand. An added plus was the Dark Clouds, who were rarely seen on camera from the live streaming of matches, would now always be in view.
The plan worked and as Manny Lagos’ team did well on the field, the Dark Clouds continued to draw well in the east stands.
Ben Pfutzenreuter is one of those who joined the Dark Clouds in 2011 when they were on the rise. At 25, Pfutzenreuter is one of the younger leaders of the supporters and now sits on the board of directors. Purposely, there are no positions within the group, only a board with responsibilities delegated amongst themselves. With the team and supporters doing well, it didn’t take him long before he knew he wanted to be a part of what was happening.
“The reason I like sports is the act of being a fan,” said Pfutzenreuter. “The Dark Clouds were an organization who were clearly not only about celebrating the team, but about our identity as Minnesotans. It was very zero to sixty for me.”
“The supporters culture really wrapped me up and pulled me in because it really fit what I like to do. Without organization it’s always a very “do it yourself” ethic, which could be daunting to some but for me it was a blast.”
Pfutzenreuter said the story of the team winning the 2011 NASL Championship and their relationship with the Dark Clouds – which was documented so well by Brave New Media in viral videos – made the supporters want to take what they had been doing and “push it even harder.” And the uncertainty of not knowing whether there would actually be a team in Minnesota for 2012 and beyond also spurred the Dark Clouds.
“The tension of any adversity always stirs a lot of creativity,” said Pfutzenreuter. “So going into the 2012 season and not knowing if this would be our last game – our last season – every home game was a big deal for us. We had to get people to the games and we had to distinguish ourselves to let people know that with supporters culture we are different that any other sport in Minnesota and that we as an organization were different than any other supporters group in the U.S.”
Pfutzenreuter definitely goes for it when it comes to supporters culture. Last year for the home opener at the Metrodome that drew over 8,000 fans, he created what he believes is the largest tifo display ever produced by the current NASL team supporters. He wanted to set a standard in the league and he believes he and the other Dark Clouds supporters did that.
“Unity has always been a big message in sports in Minnesota,” said Pfutzenreuter describing the 4 part banner that was over 40 yards wide. “The two skylines was a sign of unity with the two cities rallying around this team. Of course the star rising above the Metrodome was to acknowledge our presence there and "L'Etoile du nord" (The Star of the North) is the official Minnesota state motto.”
In the offseason Pfutzenreuter and many new Dark Clouds supporters have joined in to create a new tifo display for this year’s home opener, (again at the Metrodome) on April 6th, that he thinks will set a standard for something that no one has done before in North America. “It took a lot of talking and planning, but we’re excited,” said Pfutzenreuter.
Jim Crist, 31 is another of the new guard that has taken over on a leadership position with the Dark Clouds. He’s been with the supporters since their early days at The Jimmy. He’s seen all the changes and admits it’s a little strange to see his team have a financially stable owner who wants to promote and grow the team.
“It’s a little weird. We’ve never had that before,” Crist said. “But I don’t know that it’s going to change a lot of what we do with the Dark Clouds. In the past we’ve really taken it upon ourselves to go out and bring people in to see the team. But now that they have financial backing and the ability to market themselves, we want to help create that atmosphere where people go: I didn’t know about those guys over there – but holy cow – look what they’re doing. I want to be in on that.”
Crist and others started membership dues last year with well over a 100 active members and many more expected this year. The group has also worked hard to create partnerships with local breweries, bars, restaurants and soccer shops. They also show up at local soccer pubs on Saturday and Sunday mornings to do trivia while working to make the Euro soccer crowds more aware of their own local team. They have also been involved with numerous charity events including the Sanneh Foundation.
The special relationship between the Dark Clouds and their team was solidified more than ever in 2012 when long time supporter Kevin Joseph was asked to redesign the logo and player/coach Kevin Friedland designed a custom away jersey which paid tribute to the supporters. Each number on the rear of the jersey contained a unique photo of the supporters section crowds and the collar displayed the Dark Clouds logo. On the tail of the jerseys was the supporters motto: “Everywhere we go – Dark Clouds follow.”
In 2012, it wasn't unusual for the Dark Clouds to have several hundred supporters turn up for games on a regular basis, with choreographed flares, smoke bombs as well as group and individually created tifo.
These days you will find a diverse group of people in the Dark Clouds. Young and old, male and female, all tailgating before games and standing shoulder to shoulder in the east stands to support their team. From the older founders of the group like Logan, McGuire and Wattenhofer, to the younger members like Crist, de Sam Lazaro and Pfutzenreuter, they all come from different places in life, but gather together under the same Dark Clouds flag that Wattenhofer and the Fleischhackers created some 9 years ago. They are all like family.
“Playing for the Dark Clouds is truly a unique experience,” said Kyle Altman recently. “As a professional, I’d like to think players aren't influenced by what happens in the stands, but in Minnesota, that simply isn't true. Unlike the incessant drone of 14,000 murmuring in Montreal, or the bombardment of 12,000 singing in Portland, our fans have names, faces, and voices. After games, you don't clap at them to show your appreciation. You look them in the eye and shake their hand; sometimes you even receive a hug. In this way, the players and fans have truly become a family. As any player can attest, your performance on the field carries much more meaning when you know your family is watching.”
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