- Sarah Squire/Daily
BY ZAK PYZIK
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 21, 2010
International soccer is known to have some of the most diehard fans of any sport known to the world, so it was just a matter of time before a fan base established its roots in Ann Arbor.
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And in the Wolverines' 0-0 tie against Notre Dame last weekend, 300 Michigan Ultras stood unified in the stands by shirts and scarves. It took the hand and guidance of one motivated fan to get the ball rolling. Fifth-year senior Matthew Peven started scheming for a student fan club in the spring of 2010, knowing that for the coming fall, the new $6 million soccer complex would be ready to go.
“The student section bleachers are practically on top of the field,” Ultra's event chair Joe Rubino said in an interview Tuesday night. “Especially when there are plays on our side of the field, you can tell the opponents get, well, psyched out.”
Peven started his efforts by sitting down with Michigan men’s soccer coach Steve Burns and the Wolverines' marketing department. Together, the team, the school and Peven combined efforts and resources to ignite a student-fan uprising.
So far, anyone who has come to the game as an Ultra and sat in the student section received free T-shirts and for the last game, scarves. (At European and international soccer matches, fans typically hold scarves of their team's colors over their heads to symbolize who they're cheering for, similar to "The Terrible Towel" used in Pittsburgh for the Steelers.)
Game by game, Peven started seeing more new faces join the stands in support of the Wolverines. It seems as if the Ultras have the support from the entire athletic department as well.
“The football team had that pep rally recently and we had Rich Rod say something about the game to the students,” Peven said. “We had 300 students at that game. It had a quick uptake this season. Three-thousand-five-hundred people came out to that game specifically. That’s an absolute 180 from last year.”
Blueprint for endurance
Even Peven knows that it will be difficult for the Ultras to stay alive. A long-lasting fan club can only be solidified if it creates tradition, if the team does well and if there are people to succeed the previous leaders.
“We have some big things planned outside of just match day,” Rubino said. “We want this to be more than just a student section, we want it to be a club where soccer fans in general can appreciate the sport.”
Peven graduates this year, but the man has a plan.
“We have a core of young students that are interested,” Peven said. “Most of our fans are actually freshmen. I’ve been approached by everyone who has come to the game. Everyone says that they can’t wait to come back. One of our vice presidents is a freshman. Most are sophomores, so there is potential that this can be long term.”
The Ultras are establishing an executive board with positions that will be distributed to a lot of younger members. Their hope is that the club will be instituted enough that it will never go away.
Chanting their way to history
“I want the student section to be like every other student section on campus,” Rubino said. “I want the games to be like Yost but without the ice.”
While the Ultras may not turn the soccer stadium into Yost or Crisler overnight, some things are getting pretty close. Specifically — the chants.
“We have our own ‘bum of the game’ chant like Maize Raige,” Peven said. “And that’s been very effective, like one of the ‘bums’ moved his position and shifted to the other side of the field in the middle of the game.”
They also have adopted several of Yost's more controversial plays on words, specifically targeting players by name.
Chants are not the only traditions that the Ultras are attempting to sketch into the game-time experience.
“We have yet to really figure out what is going to truly be the Ultras tradition,” Peven said. “As the seasons and years go, a tradition and theme of the Ultras will come out. There has been a lot of talk of creating a song that we sing at the beginning and ending of the game. Possibly the ‘Yellow and Blue’ just like Liverpool fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ ”
The Twelfth Man
The Wolverines may have gotten lucky with the Ultras. Not only is it a fan club, but it’s a whole new component on game day.
The Ultras have and will influence the team in more ways than simply making the opposing team feel uncomfortable if there's a name on the roster that rhymes with a funny word.
First, a big student section and a brand new stadium could be a recruit’s paradise.
“I think that this generates excitement on gameday for recruits coming to watch,” captain Alex Wood said in an interview Tuesday evening. “This also gets more athletes in the area to come to watch the game. Anyone that goes to the game sees the love and that reflects Ann Arbor.”
Second, the Ultras argue their existence brings momentum to Wolverine soccer that has not ever been seen before.
“The players have acknowledged it. After goals they come over to us,” Peven said. “I’ve got a friendly relationship with a lot of the players. They will come up to me, and they’ll say, ‘thank you so much. I’m so happy that you guys have been cheering us on.’ Every time that I’ve talked to them they ask if there’s anything they can do to help. Right now I just say, ‘bring us results.’ ”
The motivation and sensation that the players feel is obvious. Especially going from regularly having close to an empty house to being over capacity.
And so far they've seen results. Michigan has only lost one of five home games this year and the Wolverines played in front of a record breaking crowd last week against the Fighting Irish. More than 3,500 people showed up — topping the old record by nearly 500 people.
"We used to have just parents and maybe our girlfriends and a few students come to the games,” Wood said. “Its awesome to walk out of the tunnel at the beginning of the game and people are screaming for you. And they’re going nuts for the entire game — all 90 minutes.”