The first time I watched the Barnicle brothers' documentary Tifo, I found it hard to believe it had been shot in America. The scenes of choreographed fandom and collective passion border on delirium. After savoring them, most soccer fans will immediately add Portland's Jeld-Wen Field to their lists of "lifetime must-visit" footballing experiences, alongside Juventus Stadium and Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park.
It used to be so different. When I first moved to the United States in the early '90s, there was no professional football league and the sport’s television profile was invisible. When my boyhood club, Everton, reached the semifinal of the FA Cup, I had to call my dad back in England and beg him to hold the phone near a radio so I could follow the game for 90 desperate minutes.
How far we have come in less than 20 years. Lionel Messi is the third-most-popular active athlete for Americans under the age of 24; Sir Ian Darke and Rebecca Lowe are cult heroes for a nation that has become EA Sports' second biggest player of its FIFA franchise; and the domestic league, MLS, supplies the core of a U.S. men’s national team squad that has just experienced the most successful year in its history. America has become a bona fide football nation.
The Barnicle brothers, Nick and Colin, have bottled this sporting sea change in Tifo. As the name suggests, the filmmakers home in on a huge band of passionate Portland Timbers fans as they agonize for one month over the construction of an enormous supporter banner that will be raised before a game for less than 60 seconds. But what a minute! Painting has not seemed this dramatic since Ed Harris channeled Pollock.
To me, the most heartening theme of the Barnicles’ film is that amid the smoke, beer, song, and scarves ubiquitous in any self-respecting football nation, there is something tangibly homegrown about it all. When Timber Joey chainsaws that log and the wood chips start to fly, there can be no mistake. This is self-confident, rhapsodic, "Made in America" soccer culture.
That the Barnicles are making soccer movies at all is part of that story. They hail from New England baseball stock. Colin, who is 27, was able to articulate the moment the brothers fell in love with MLS fan culture while shooting the early scenes of the film. “I find myself in one of 15 buses barreling up Interstate 5 to Seattle, sitting on a keg next to the crapper. Everyone is inked up with some kind of Portland Timbers tattoo and they're chanting 'We Eat Children,'” he tells me. “A thousand fans storm out upon arrival, popping green smoke. The air is mixed with the acrid scent of a cheap bar and the lingering haze of a Vietnam DMZ. Hell, the guy next to me was in an army helmet and fatigues draped in a green-and-gold flag that said 'No Pity.' I would not have been surprised if Stanley Kubrick turned the corner and dropped some napalm on-set," he marveled. "Simply put, no one in sports travels like this."