Welcome to the second of my US soccer fan stories. I had the privilege of speaking to a supporter who epitomises the word diehard – Vancouver Whitecaps fan, Kristjan Aug. As well as supporting his team, Kristjan has also flown fellow fans to an away game himself. Yes, really.
“In 2013 faced with a mid-week game in Seattle that myself and many Caps friends would miss due to work, I joked online about flying a group of us to the game. It got a good amount of traction, so I approached my company about chartering an aircraft to fly us to and from Seattle for the game on the condition that I would be assigned to fly the charter.”
“I got a group of 18 Caps fans together and we did just that. We met at Vancouver Airport at about 4pm to board up. We flew to Boeing Field located close to Century Link field where a stretch Hummer met us air side to drive us to the match.
“We watched the Whitecaps win 4-1 with a Kekuta Manneh hat-trick (youngest ever hat-trick in MLS) before being driven back to the airport. We flew home and were back in Vancouver shortly before midnight. Without this flight as an option, the group of us wouldn’t have been able to attend the match. Everyone on board was given a commemorative scarf and the Wings Over Cascadia legend was born.”
Kristjan has been on a staggering 37 away trips since the Whitecaps’ introduction to Major League Soccer in 2011 and he is one of the most dedicated fans I have ever come across…
“I have been to 37 away games since the Whitecaps joined MLS in 2011. I became a season ticket holder and a Southsider that year at the beginning of the season. I also didn’t miss a single home game for four years until I had to move away for work…
“I still have season tickets in Vancouver and travel to Vancouver for 5-7 games a year depending on work schedule, but I have not included those in my count. The count of 37 away games is for games not played in Vancouver. My current record is 13 wins – 16 losses – 8 draws, I have it on my Twitter bio and update it after every match I attend. I also have a running list on paper at home.”
I asked Kristjan to name me his favourite away trip, admittedly a tough question since he has been on so many. He kindly narrowed it down to his top three.
June 2011: First Whitecaps and Cascadia away match
“June 11, 2011 was my first ever Whitecaps away match and my first Cascadia away match. It was also the night we debuted my first ever tifo project. I had made a series of 2-stick banners showcasing some of our Whitecaps players faces and names. I had spent about 2 hours per banner painting and sewing them, and brought 9 with me (Whitecaps logo, Hassli, Salinas, Salgado, Rochat, Teibert, Cannon, Chiumiento, and Camilo). Since then I have painted about 60 2-stick banners, and about 15-20 railing banners. I have even painted three more this year which travel with me, or the Southsiders hang in BC Place. By June I had made some good friends in the Southsiders who travelled with me to the match, but I made many more friends that night because of the banners if nothing else. The trip showcased what away days were all about.
“Travelling with like-minded people to come together and support the team we all love. The game itself was a very exciting 2-2 draw with the late game Eric Hassli wonder-goal stealing the show and securing our trip with a point. The Southsiders organised bus trip down the I-5 had me instantly hooked and I would attend many more Whitecaps away trips with my fellow supporters. I would come to meet hundreds of fantastic supporters from all walks of life and many I am still close with and see when I attend games both in Vancouver, and on the road. This first match got me hooked on both tifo projects, away travel, and made me realise how fantastic a community of soccer supporters can be. It has led to years of volunteering with the Southsiders as a tifo painter, on-field capo, recreation team and event organiser, and general enthusiast of supporter’s culture.”
2017: Colorado Rapids vs Vancouver Whitecaps – The one-man army.
“I was planning to attend a match in Colorado for the second time (the first being in 2012), I reached out to the Colorado Rapids front office to obtain tickets in the official away supporters’ section. I was offered various other tickets because I was likely to be alone in that section. I refused as I knew I would need to be allowed to stand, chant, wave my flag, and support in the manner I normally do.
“I knew I would not be allowed to do that in other sections of the stadium. I expected to find at least one other Whitecaps fan in the stadium, but because it was a Friday night match in early May, no one else made the trip. Once I found out I was literally the only Whitecaps fan in the entire stadium, I knew I had to support harder than I ever had before. I had a great time with the Rapids fans around me, bantering back and forth, and at one point even helping a group of 10-year-olds get their section going in a “Go Rapids GO” chant. People asked me later why I did that, and I replied that by showing these kids that their support is appreciated and picked up on by other fans in the stadium, they are more likely to repeat it, come to more matches, maybe join a supporters group, go to away games, and do all the other kinds of things I do myself. I viewed it as a way of spreading friendly supporters culture.
“In the end, the Whitecaps scored a late 1-0 game winning goal and I went absolutely mental. I was so happy that we won, when my favourite player Jordan Harvey was playing his 250th MLS match that night, and that I got to see a second 1-0 win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. I met up with the incredibly friendly C38 supporters group for our bus ride back to the city (I had also hung out with them pre-match), and after the standard banter we had a great night of beers and story sharing. I woke up the following morning having entirely lost my voice from the night before, to a flurry of messages on every medium possible. My brother in Australia had even messaged me because his friends had seen me on TV. I had no idea I had become a sort of mini-celebrity. There were pictures of me online, and I even had two articles written about my one-man army.” (Read his Colorado story on MLSsoccer.com)
“By the time I showed up in Vancouver two weeks later for a home game, my supporters group had already painted a banner immortalising me. It was definitely an incredible experience.”
The opening Seattle story was part of Kristjan’s top three, but he wanted to give an honourable mention to his recent trip to Columbus:
2018: Columbus Crew vs Vancouver Whitecaps
“Honourable mention: Columbus away this year (March 31, 2018)
“I had originally planned to attend the match, but then cancelled my trip due to finances. The night before the game I was up late painting tifo and having a few beers. I was simultaneously talking to some friends in Vancouver via text and Facebook messenger. I had been asking their opinions on the tifo I was painting. They asked about the Columbus game and I said I had to cancel it. Over the course of the conversation, they made me second guess my decision and at 2am Saturday morning I booked myself flights, hotel, and bought a match ticket.
“Kick-off was about 12 hours away. I landed about 45 minutes before kick-off, got a cab to my hotel to drop off my bag, then straight to the stadium and I made it with about 15 minutes to spare. I watched a great 2-1 win and met up with Columbus fans post-match. In total I spent less than 24 hours in Columbus, had a great time, walked away with three points, and learned to never second guess going on away-trips. I should just go and have a good time. You can always earn more money, but you can’t live experiences after they’ve passed.”
Kristjan has travelled a lot, so I was interested in hearing about his experiences on his travels, and how Whitecaps fans are received in another club’s city:
“I have always had good experiences on my away trips with very few issues. The places I have had the most memorable experiences are Colorado, Seattle, and Portland. Each destination is for different reasons, whether it be the result, the friends I travelled with, or the city itself. I always manage to have a great time, even when we have lost 4-0 in DC, 4-1 in Atlanta, 6-0 in Kansas, and 4-0 in Philadelphia, I have found a way to enjoy the trip. There’s a certain point where no matter how disappointed (or even angry) I am about the on-field performance, I still try to make the best of the situation. There has not been a city yet where I have sworn to never return to, and I hope that continues.
“Overall Vancouver fans are treated quite well. We are not seen as a threat or a rival by many clubs, and so I am somewhat blessed to fly under the radar. I have only had issues with the home fans on three occasions and each time it was fairly minor (stealing a scarf or flag), but on one occasion we needed to get stadium security and police involved as the home fan was continually threatening our group’s safety. Generally, people treat us very well and when I am invited to tailgates, I am greeted with food and beer and friendly banter. I enjoy it immensely and of course extend a return invitation on behalf of the Southsiders. Being part of this supporters group has allowed me to get in touch with or be referred to home fans’ tailgates and supporters groups. As part of the Independent Supporter’s Council, the member groups all abide by rules and codes of conduct allowing for easy away travel. For example, in 2012 I went to Colorado and met a junior board member of the Bulldogs (who eventually merged with others to become Centennial 38). We have stayed in touch over the years and I met up with him when I was in Colorado last year. We even went to a Rockies game the night after the Caps game.
“I met some fans at the pre-match tailgate in DC during the bitterly cold 4-0 loss in 2016, who (during a protest an unfair ban of some of their members) joined the two of us Caps fans during the first half. I bumped into them again at a bar in Toronto in 2017 when I went out for a beer and just happened to run into them during their post-match celebration, and now they have invited me to their tailgate at the opening of their new stadium vs Whitecaps on July 14. It’s these kinds of continued meetings that make me happy and optimistic about the state of supporters’ culture within MLS.”
Out of his 37 trips, Orlando is the furthest he has travelled. A fair bit of mileage, to say the least.
“In March of 2015 I was living in Northern BC in a place called Prince George. I then travelled to the furthest away Whitecaps opponent, Orlando. I spent a week travelling around Florida, met up with some fellow Caps fans for a 1-0 win thanks to Octavio Rivero’s late header. We had even bumped into him on the streets of Orlando earlier in the day, and my Spanish speaking friend wished him best of luck in the match (of course after we got a picture with him). For this trip I had to fly from Prince George to Vancouver, drive to Seattle, fly to Las Vegas to connect to Orlando. The most I’ve had to do for one single game.”
Kristjan has visited many stadiums, but Providence Park and Mercedes-Benz stick out as his favourites:
“My favourite stadiums so far have been Providence Park in Portland and Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. My criteria are simple. Nice building, good atmosphere, transit or easily accessible to a downtown area, and a good selection of pubs or restaurants nearby. The Timbers’ home is a beautiful and intimate stadium with a great atmosphere. I always have a great time in Portland and their fans are some of the nicest and most passionate fans in the entire league.
“Mercedes Benz is a gorgeous stadium that is beautifully laid out and open feeling. It is very modern by contrast to Portland’s stadium, but I really enjoyed it. It has all the noise generation, big screens, and flashiness you’d expect from an NFL stadium, but felt pretty good in a soccer setup. Those are probably my favourite two, but honourable mention would go to Red Bull Arena. It is a gorgeous stadium, but it is in the middle of a rougher neighbourhood which is up and coming right now. In another year or two of development it will be better.”
Following your team in North America is extremely difficult, involving many different factors, Kristjan explained:
“Following a team in North America is incredibly expensive and for fans who live in Vancouver I would say very difficult. There are not many direct flights from Vancouver to other MLS cities, especially on the East coast and therefore flights will be more expensive. Flights are not cheap to cross the border either, so that doesn’t help, and most people aren’t willing to spend a large sum of money for a weekend, so then you need to make a longer trip and that becomes expensive and prohibitive. Or it may result in only one big trip per year. Right now, the exchange rate is awful, costing about 30% more to travel to the US. That is honestly the biggest hurdle right now. I am fortunate enough to have some advantages at least. I live in Toronto, so the only city I can’t fly to directly from here is San Jose (but I can get to SFO which is basically next door). Every other city has a direct flight. Because I travel by myself I have no need to make big long vacations out of my trips and 2-3 days is usually long enough to accomplish everything I want.
“I would say by far the biggest advantage for me personally is that now I get flight benefits through work (I fly for Air Canada Express). Contrary to popular belief, I do not get to fly for free, but with heavily reduced fares a weekend in Kansas becomes much more affordable. I didn’t have these passes until the 2016 season, so it is a recent perk I have been able to take advantage of. I often base the length of my trips on hotel cost as that seems to be the biggest expense for me (aside from my bar tab 😛 ). For example, I am planning a week in San Jose in August, but I won’t get my schedule until late July, so I can’t book anything in advance as I don’t know my days off. That means that by the time I book, everything is more expensive. I had planned to go to Philly 2 years ago but by the time I was able to book, the cheapest hotel I could find was nearly $400 a night. Obviously, that was more than I wanted to spend. The Whitecaps take up most of my entertainment and travel budgets, so I do try to take longer trips when able.
“I enjoy hiking and camping, so I try to do some of that if I am able. I plan to take some time in Yosemite when I go to San Jose. in Colorado last year I spent 2 days hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, and before the match in Houston, I spent 2 days canoeing and camping on 89km of the Neches River East of Houston. I do have a daredevil adventure planned for when I go to LAFC for that match, but I’m keeping that a secret for now…”
Finally, I wanted to ask Kristjan for his thoughts on Vancouver’s season so far and how he thinks they will fare for the rest of the year:
“As for Vancouver’s season so far, it’s been disappointing to be honest. We aren’t playing the way I know we can, and the results have not been the way I would like. My view may be skewed because I have seen the worst results in person with big losses on my away trips. 4-1 in Atlanta, 6-0 in Kansas, 4-0 in Philadelphia… Things have not been going my way on away trips recently and I hope that changes soon. That being said, I have seen 2-1 win in Columbus and a 2-2 miracle last minute PK draw in Dallas. Something needs to change on the pitch and I won’t pretend to know what the exact solution will be, but something needs to change. We have barely squeaked through so many games, getting last-ditch draws, but then get dismantled the following week.
“Road games have not been our forte this year and points are being dropped when they should be picked up. I want to think we’ll make the playoffs, but unless things pick up, I am not confident that that will happen. Regardless, I will continue to travel, paint banners, and support the team with all my heart and voice. I’d honestly have it no other way. I just hope the team knows that no matter what, there are people out there like me who will give our all for the club we love. Day in day out, win or loss, we are there for the Caps and will support them until the bitter end.”
Here is one of the most interesting things Kristjan told me, and I really do have to agree with him:
“People often say (especially after bad losses like Kansas) that the team should give me a refund or give me merchandise for having travelled so far for terrible games. I am strongly against this. I am not looking for compensation of any kind. I travel to support the Caps because it is genuinely what I enjoy doing. The thought that I am owed anything other than a good effort is a problem. Losing sucks, but it’s easier to handle when it’s a close 3-2 or 2-1 game than a blowout 6-0. Giving me back the money for my ticket or giving me another kit (I already have 14 of them), solves nothing. I am not in this for any kind of gain. I just want the Caps to play.”
I totally agree with that and I think he hits the nail on the head. You buy a ticket and travel because you simply have love for your team and want to support them. There’s no guarantee that your team will win, that’s the risk you take as a supporter. The true meaning of a supporter, to me, is sticking with your team whether they win, lose or draw.
Good man, Kristjan. Your heart is in the right place and I am certain you’re valued by everyone associated with Vancouver Whitecaps.
I’d like to thank Kristjan for taking the time to speak to me, his story is both remarkable and admirable. He’s the most dedicated fan I have ever come across. Feel free to follow him on Twitter, @KrisAug5, and keep up to date with his future travels!