Over the years, I’ve managed to arrange and conduct interviews with nearly the entire spectrum of people in the world of American soccer. From a number of players that entertain us on the pitch — including an Olympic gold medalist — to the club executives who run things behind the scenes to a guy who enables our social watching by running one of the country’s most recognizable soccer bars. These talks and discussions have given me lots of unique perspectives, shedding light on aspects of the game that I would have never thought about otherwise.
But as I was contemplating my next interviewee, I felt there was a glaring omission from across the spectrum of the American soccer experience: the fan.
Like all of the other important parties we’ve talked to above, the supporter is omnipresent within the sport. Soccer is dependent on its supporters to fuel its economy, whether directly through ticket or merchandise purchases or indirectly through television deals. We — myself included — are a vital cog in the world of football. And just like if you were to remove the players, the front offices or means by which we watched our teams play, if you removed the fans, the sport would quickly die.
But I knew I couldn’t interview just any supporter. It had to be someone who his peers could look up to, be inspired by, or strive to emulate. This fan would need to be a supporter that adds to and improves the experience of those who have the privilege of taking in the match with him.
Luckily, I just so happen to know one.
Allow me to introduce you to Justin Bell, better known by his online pseudonym @MassiveCityFFC. The founder of Massive City Football Fan Corps, Justin is hands down one of the most vocal supporters of the Columbus Crew. From writing and talking on the Massive Report, to leading cheers in Crew Stadium’s Nordecke to designing supporter gear, popular club imagery and tifos — including the spectacular “HOME” banner at the last Dos A Cero — Justin has played a significant role in creating the pop culture that surrounds and supports the Crew in Columbus and beyond.
And even more lucky, Justin was so kind to sit down with me to talk about his work, his time supporting the Crew, and his thoughts on the club’s future.
DJ @ WSOTP: Let’s start things off from the beginning: how long have you lived in Columbus?
Justin Bell: I’ve been living in or around Columbus since I was in grade school in the 80’s. We moved here from Iowa when I was a kid. Iowa has always felt like home in a lot of ways, but Ohio is definitely Home with a capital “H”.
DJ @ WSOTP: Has soccer been a lifelong love? Did you grow up playing or are you one of the growing number of later-life converts?
Justin Bell: Where we moved to in Ohio didn’t have a youth soccer program or even a high school program. I always liked soccer, but never had a chance to play in an organized way. I remember watching it on television when it was rarely on and thinking it was cool, but not even really understanding what I was seeing. The first games I remember watching were during the 1990 World Cup. Jurgen Klinsmann was immediately my favorite player, but I really didn’t know much about him or even where to look to find out about him. I had a few Panini stickers from that World Cup that I got at a baseball card shop, but I put them in random places like lockers and notebooks. It was a million times easier to be a Michael Jordan fan, so that’s what everyone did — myself included. But, I kind of paid attention to whatever I could find out about Klinsmann, and the West German, Argentine, United States, and Italian teams, too.
The lasting consequence of World Cup 1990 for me was, since Klinsmann was playing for Inter at the time, that I started following Inter. Lothar Matthaus and Andy Brehme also played for Inter, so I started following that team when I could. I’ve followed Inter since then, and started paying more attention after the 1994 World Cup. That was big event for a lot of people my age. I think those of us Gen X kids who were kind of reserved about being soccer fans felt like it was a real thing after 1994. The Internet was a huge contributor to that, too.
DJ @ WSOTP: As a Crew supporter, it’s always interesting to learn whether fellow fans have been with the team since 1996, or if they were a little later to the party. How long have you supported the Crew?
Justin Bell: The first Crew game I went to was in 1996… but it was kind of on accident. I was walking around campus at Ohio State with my girlfriend and a woman asked us if we wanted tickets to the soccer game, courtesy of Kroger. We initially said no because I had to work that night, but then decided to do it anyway and I called work — from a campus payphone — told them I was sick, and went to the game. It was really interesting. I remember thinking that it was amazing that there was a anything like a real professional soccer team in Columbus. I wouldn’t say I was a “supporter” in the 1990s, because I didn’t have the time or money or any clue of what that meant. I was just a fan who went to one or two games a season when I had the time and money.
Justin Bell: One thing I did do a few times in those very early days was call into local sports radio shows and talk to the on air host about the Crew. I wanted to make a big deal every now and then about how they never talked about the Crew, especially since they talked about the NFL or the Cavs or whatever other sport that had nothing to do with Columbus. It seemed like fighting for a lost cause against something that had all of the power — which I’ve always had an annoying tendency to do, for better or worse.
I got made fun of a lot and called many names by listeners and radio hosts for calling in to talk about soccer. But, man, was that fun. I remember one time I told the producer who answered the phone that I wanted to talk about the Seattle Mariners —The Seattle fucking Mariners! — and they put me right through. Instead, I started talking about Brian McBride or Stern John or someone, and they hung up on me. Columbus sports radio would talk about the Seattle Mariners, but the only professional major league team in Columbus was unacceptable. It cracked me up how stupid it all was. I suppose I should have known I would become a wise-cracking, anti-establishment, self-deprecating, diehard defender of the Columbus soccer cause back then.
DJ @ WSOTP: Do you think there was a moment where you went from being a regular fan to becoming a full-blown, super supporter? Or was it more of a gradual process?
Justin Bell: It was gradual. I went to more and more games after the team moved to Crew Stadium. I actually had a part-time entry-level job at the Ohio Historical Society around 2000 and 2001 and I would sometimes go and watch games after I was done at work. It was easy to just walk over, watch a match, then head home or wherever. I went back to school at Ohio State in 2002, and that made it harder to go to every game. But I still went to a bunch back then. It was always fun, even the years when the team wasn’t so great. All of those years before the stage was put into the north end don’t seem like that long ago in some ways, but in other ways it seems like it’s been ages. The games were often great, but the crowds could be pretty sparse. In 2002 my brother, Ben, and I went to the exhibition match vs. Tigres from Mexico and we sat in the old north end. About halftime, we realized that we were sitting in the middle of a crowd of Tigres fans, and we were the only non-native Spanish speaking people anywhere around. Not a Crew fan was near us.
I think things started to change in 2007: Sigi Schmid was hired and I think a lot of fans knew that was a big deal. Then Schelotto was signed, and I was mildly freaking out about the potential for what was going on with the Crew. I was done with my second trip to college in 2007 — I didn’t have to convince Ohio State professors that it was okay to skip class to follow my soccer team anymore — and that gave me more time to spend on soccer as an interest.
DJ @ WSOTP: Well, there’s no question today that you are one of the most well-known supporters of the Crew, especially through your Massive City Football Fan Corps (@massivecityffc) moniker. But one thing I’ve always been a little confused about… what exactly is Massive City FFC? A supporters group, your online persona, a blog, or a Crew-themed gear brand?
Justin Bell: All of the above and none of the above. In the last 5 years it’s been me and some other people who have popped into and out of the picture when they are able to. What the goals, structures, purposes are . . . maybe somethings are best left mysteries.
DJ @ WSOTP: Hmm, cryptic. Well let’s talk then a bit about the work you’ve done with Massive City FFC. You’ve been designing banners, flyers and fan art for the Crew for a long time now. How did you get into designing?
Justin Bell: I started doing soccer-themed and Crew-themed work as Massive City FFC in 2009. The main reason was because a few of us were kind of disappointed that there wasn’t more going on to promote and celebrate the fact that Columbus had the best team in the league, and maybe the best professional soccer team in the history of this country. Simply put, a few of us just started doing things, making things, talking about the Crew on blogs, on BigSoccer, on Twitter, Facebook, putting up posters, stickers, helping the supporters groups with designs.
This might get back to what you asked earlier, but a lot of us in 2006 and 2007 could see what was coming with soccer in this country, even before Beckham came to LA. I kept waiting for the Crew to fulfill that role in Columbus in those years. Then, here we were in 2009, soccer was blowing up all over the place, Columbus had the best team and just won the double, and… nothing.
[Former Crew owner/operator] Hunt Sports Group just didn’t have any sense for promoting the Crew in Columbus. MLS clearly wanted other markets to be leaders. So Columbus was way down the list of priorities, and I felt that fans had to do something. With very limited resources and a lot of passion and creativity, I think we — the supporters groups, the MassiveReport.com guys, a handful of Crew bloggers, a few creative artists — kept things going during those years. I’ve seen so many things that we created that have been appropriated by the league and the team and officially recognized retailers, shirt shops, and advertisers. It’s pretty clear that we changed some things.
DJ @ WSOTP: As a writer and self-described designer myself, I’ve always had this innate desire to create. Were you the same way as a kid?
Justin Bell: Since I was old enough to hold a crayon! My mom is an artist and art teacher. That kind of gave us a head start. My dad’s a scientist — biology and environmental engineering. Our parents showed us a truly unique, creative, realistic, and diverse way to look at the world. My brother, sister, and I are very lucky.
DJ @ WSOTP: And given everything you’ve said so far, I’d imagine your day job is design related too?
Justin Bell: Yep.
DJ @ WSOTP: Do you have a favorite design—Crew or otherwise—that you’ve put together over the last few years that really stands out in your mind?
Justin Bell: That’s a tough one, too. But it’s definitely the Dos a Cero/HOME display — the first #TIFOSWEAT project — that we did for USA-Mexico in 2013.
DJ @ WSOTP: Talk to me a little about #TIFOSWEAT, and what exactly that means.
Justin Bell: #TIFOSWEAT is a kind of supporters group, but not like the established ones that exist in the Nordecke. It’s more of a working group that includes everyone and anyone who wants to help on tifo.
It started out as a code word for the display for USA-Mexico [World Cup Qualifier in Columbus last September]. The first day that we rolled out the fabric for the banners it had to have been at least 90 degrees in the place where we were working. There were only five of us there at the start of it — Katie Mitchell, Jarvis Woodson, Matt Fulks, Morgan Hughes, and me — and I think it was dawning on us for the first time about the size of what we were trying to do. At some point, Morgan started singing and riffing some lyrics while doing a Michael McDonald impression. I thought it was funny, so I started recording it with my iPhone. One of the lyrics was “tifosweat” and Matt and I pretty much wouldn’t let it go once we heard it. We started tweeting and posting messages about #TIFOSWEAT to get more people to come help out, but we never said what it was about. Then I started putting #TIFOSWEAT on random pop-culture images and people started asking me what they were about. It ended up being a really great way to get people to come join us and work while maintaining the secrecy of the whole thing.
We were really careful about not letting any pictures, videos, or anything get published out of our control leading up to USA-Mexico. It was really clear that there were fans in certain parts of the country who wanted us to fail or interfere with our plans. And because of that, I was driven to reign in everything that could ruin the surprise. I implored people to not even describe what they were working on when talking about it with their friends… “just say it’s awesome” or something like that. I almost implemented a check your phones at the door rule, but everyone was totally great and understood that it was A1-CLASSIFIED-FOR-#TIFOSWEAT-EYES ONLY-TOP-FUCKING-SECRET.
There were so many people who worked so many hours on those banners. Ken Etchison and Tony Wilsbacher measured and drew all of the grids in chalk on the fabric so I could draw the images with lumber crayons. John Zidar jumped in and helped me when my eyes were starting to blur and I could barely see. Toward the end, we had 30-50 people working on the banners in the Crew Stadium parking lots until after sunset, cars lined up around the banners with headlights on. We didn’t have power outlets in the Crew Stadium parking lot, so Suzi Clow rigged up her sewing machine to the battery of her Mini Cooper. The Stanek brothers, Alex and Elliott, must have helped me carry those 100-pound banners back and forth into the stadium a dozen times. The Crew’s Phil Goldfarb and Dan Lolli were incredibly helpful with getting access to the stadium. I wish I could name everyone who worked on this whenever I talk about it, because they deserve it. The most I slept any one night during the two weeks leading up to the game was probably 3 hours, and I know there were so many more of us who did the same. Morgan lost something like 15 pounds. People were just flat out dedicated to getting it done and willing to go until they were physically and mentally exhausted.
Then, when it was all over, everyone asked me and Morgan, “So what do we do next?” What I wanted to do next was pass out and sleep for a year, but I knew exactly where they were coming from. We had to make #TIFOSWEAT happen for the Crew on a regular basis, and make it so other people could lead #TIFOSWEAT projects.
DJ @ WSOTP: Speaking of that original #TIFOSWEAT project, how did you come to land the gig to create the display for the US-Mexico game last September?
Justin Bell: I didn’t think I was going to get it, but knew that Columbus had to do something good. There were ideas and great intentions that were talked about for a USA tifo the moment the match was announced, but talking was really all that was going on.
Days went by. Then weeks. Then months. It was about 70 days before the game, and I saw that the steps weren’t being taken and we were really running out time. So I just jumped in. I went to a meeting of the Crew supporters groups and just started working. Luckily, I’d done a lot of research beforehand, so I kind of knew what a good design might be to symbolize Columbus being the “HOME” for Dos a Cero and the US Men’s National Team. I got a handful of people together. I found a good source for fabric that was cheap, and talked John Clem of Crew Union into kicking in $1300 to pay for the fabric. But I expected the total cost was going to be around 2 or 3 times that. So Matt Goshert and I came up with a plan to pay for materials, tools, paint, everything else by selling Massive City FFC Dos a Cero shirts and scarves. Morgan Hughes came through with the work space. And Morgan, Matt Fulks, and I put together as much of a plan as we could with the limited space, people, and resources we had available.
DJ @ WSOTP: Describe how you felt in that moment when the “HOME” tifo was pulled up at the match? Were you able to see it in its full glory?
Justin Bell: I was so proud of everyone. We wanted to do what Columbus always does for the US Men’s National Team… and then some. As great as those games always are in Columbus, that entire day was far more incredible than any of us could have imagined. My idea was that it would have two parts.
The crowd banners with “Dos a Cero” and Friedel, McBride, Hejduk, and Klinsmann would go up with the “History+Heart+Heroes=” and hopefully people would think “Hey that was pretty nice. Good job” thinking that it was done. Then, the eagle would go up with “HOME” at the bottom and people would be, like, “Wow. We didn’t see that coming.” So timing was kind of important. But the way the stage was set up made it pretty impossible to signal, and it was too loud for yelling. So the only way to time it right was to run from one end of the Crew Stadium stage to the other, and back. So that’s what I did.
When the eagle went up, that stadium was going crazy. I’ve never been in a sports venue that loud. They started playing AC/DC on the stadium speakers to build up to first kick, and then the crowd started screaming even more. When the banner came down, I just looked at all of the people who were on our #TIFOSWEAT team. They all looked so ecstatic, running around hugging each other and laughing. The American Outlaws members from around the country were ecstatic and giving them hugs and hi-fives. And the looks on our people’s faces… man.
It was really great, but I was so tired that I seriously felt like I was going to pass out. I walked around to the back of the stage and got a water; one of the concession workers asked me if I was okay. So I missed the first 5 minutes of the match. But the sound of the stadium, even back behind the stage for those 5 minutes, was just incredible. I can’t imagine what our players on the field thought of that.
Then it ended 2-0 — what else could it have been? — and we were cleaning up the banners after the match when the result came in from Honduras-Panama that clinched the World Cup spot. The players came out on the field and those of us who were still there folding up the banners ran over there and were right by them when they were celebrating. It was surreal; we were all just over the moon. I’ll never forget what Elliott Stanek said to me when we were standing on the Crew Stadium pitch folding the banners, with Frankie Hejduk and the American Outlaws celebrating with our National Team just yards away:
“Hey Justin, you know that song Row Row Row Your Boat?”
“You know that line that goes ‘Life is but a dream’?”
“Sometimes it really feels like that, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, Elliott. Sometimes it really does.”
DJ @ WSOTP: You also just completed your latest large undertaking. What inspired the “28 in 28” project, where you designed a new crest for the Crew for every day in the month of February?
Justin Bell: I had the idea to do something like it when I heard Anthony Precourt confirm that he wanted to change the crest. The original idea was to do 30 new designs in 30 days. Not all finished designs, but designs that had real, thoroughly thought-out rationale behind them. But it was a big challenge, and especially one that would be hard to find the time to do since it was self-imposed and, of course, unpaid.
I put the idea aside for a few months, then in January I was talking with Columbus Alive editor Justin McIntosh at Hendoc’s Pub and he asked me if I would be interested in doing something with redesigned Columbus Crew crests for their Crew preview in March. I mentioned the idea to do 30 different crests in 30 days, but was unsure for why I should do it. So, sitting at Hendoc’s Pub, we sort of came up with the way that the “28 in 28” project would work.
DJ @ WSOTP: Roughly how many hours do you think you’ve spent on the project, and will spend once it’s all done?
Justin Bell: It’s hard to say. Usually when I work on a project or a design, it’s always on my mind, even when I’m not really thinking about it. Lots of time goes into taking notes, doing quick sketches, doing rough drafts, things like that while I’m doing other work. Actually doing the finished designs and writing the accompanying essays probably took me 4 to 6 hours a day, which basically meant I had little-to-no free time for a month. Unless I tried to work ahead, of course.
Man, it was a lot of work… but it was really, really fun. The response that I’ve received from people who’ve read it was overwhelming, and it was almost unanimously positive. I should go and look at the stats more in-depth, but my cheap little blog had more than 20,000 page views last month.
I’m really glad that I did it. I think it achieved what it set out to do, which was to expand the scope of what was possible for Columbus Crew design and get people to realize what a great city, team, culture, fans, and history we have. I think those things never interested HSG. The result of that has been that people around the league consider Columbus an afterthought. We’re more than out of season Ohio State fans, displaced Borussia Dortmund wannabes, and beer drinkers—while we’re certainly those things, too. I hope I was able to get Anthony Precourt’s attention with some of the essays that I wrote, and I hope that he learned some things about our city. I mean it when I say that he embodies a lot of hope for Columbus soccer. It’s the greatest city in the world. We’re lucky to have him as the owner of our soccer team, and he’s lucky to have his soccer team in our city.
DJ @ WSOTP: Are there any other soccer designers that you really dig?
Justin Bell: Other than that Wrong Side Of The Pond guy? Seriously, I need to get one of those Going to Brazil shirts.
DJ @ WSOTP: Stop it… I’m blushing. But aside from me, anyone else stand out?
Justin Bell: There are many I like. Zoran Lucic’s work is wonderful. The way he sees the sport as defined by its icons is really interesting to me, and I think he captures the nostalgia-obsessed nature of our current culture. A lot of people recognize and admire his work and don’t even know who he is. I admire that, a lot.
The two American tifo creators whose work I’ve loved for years are Prairie Rose Clayton in New England and Rick Thomas here in Columbus. Prairie Rose’s Landon Donvan banner at USA-Mexico was so awesome. I just stared at it when we were all in the stadium earlier in the day setting up the AO section. I could go on and on about what Rick has meant to Columbus and the supporters’ culture over the years. He’s kept things going when it could have easily stopped. Some people call him the Godfather of the Nordecke, which I think makes him uncomfortable; but, for sure, I can tell assure you that he’s the Godfather of #TIFOSWEAT.
DJ @ WSOTP: Well since this interview is all about you being a fan, I guess I should ask you some Crew-related questions to prove your true “super supporter” status. I think I probably already know, but who’s your favorite player to suit up for the Black & Gold? I’d wager he’s an Argentine…
Justin Bell: Man, that’s so tough… I’m going to end up dodging this question.
The guys who play for this team, they’re all really special to us. Yeah, I like Argentine soccer a lot. The more I’ve learned about it, the more interesting it is to me. That’s got a lot to do with following Inter for so many years. Javier Zanetti is probably my favorite player. Guillermo [Schelotto] was the best player I ever saw for the Crew, obviously. Higuaín sometimes seems destined to achieve that Schelotto-level of Crew greatness. Gino Padula has become one of my best friends over the years and he was great when he played here. A lot of people don’t realize that the Crew were 14-1-3 when Gino started at left back in 2008, and the important part that he played in the MLS Cup final. Going into that game, people were saying Dane Richards was going to fly around the Crew, but Gino shut down the fastest guy in the league in that final — and he did it while he was hurt. That’s just the essence of what that team was about. And speaking of embodiments of Crew soccer, Duncan Oughton is that. He’s one of the coolest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. And of course Frankie Hejduk, who’s been so incredibly important to this city for so many years as a player, captain, and leader on and off the pitch.
There are 5 other players who come to mind, though, when I think of my possible all-time favorite Crew players. Brian Maisonneuve was definitely my favorite in the early days. I always loved that Jeff Cunningham was on this team, and when he came back in 2011 to become the all-time MLS leading goal-scorer, it was kind of perfect for me as a fan. Dante Washington was just plain fun to cheer for. William Hesmer is far and away my favorite Crew goalkeeper. And the more I think about Eddie Gaven, the more I realize how great he was.
Yeah, so I totally dodged that question.
DJ @ WSOTP: You may have dodged it, but some of those names do go to prove your more than just a casual supporter. But let’s step it up a level. Imagine that Crew owner Anthony Precourt rings you and says, “Justin, I’m giving you the keys to the car — as in the club, not Frankie’s Crew Camaro — and am backing you with Toronto-esque money.” What you do with the Crew?
Justin Bell: Toronto-esque money? Does Toronto-esque money come with stipulations from MLS to do something to sell the league and US Soccer before improving the team? (Sorry, I had to take a shot at our TFC friends!) If there are no strings attached, I’d go after two better players than Bradley and Defoe — not that they’re poor, of course. It’s just that I’d want to include a superstar who fit with players 2-30 on the roster.
So with that in mind, I’d have Federico Higuaín pass on a message to Gonzalo that said I would write him whatever sized check he wanted to come and play with his brother in Columbus. #AllOfTheHiguains, so to speak.
And, of course, I’d have Mix Diskerud here in an Oslo minute to play in Berhalter’s system.
Now, if we’re talking super-massive money, there’s no doubt what I would do. I’d turn the current Crew Stadium site into something special. I’d purchase all of the land that’s currently Ohio Expo Center parking lots and build a new Crew Stadium. Once it was done, I’d tear down the current facade of Crew Stadium and build the National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum and a state of the art training facility. Then, I’d replace all of the parking that the new stadium and museum ate up with above and below ground parking garages that take up less acreage, while providing a revenue source for the State Fairgrounds, and the stadium. I’d keep the stage and current Crew Stadium pitch as soccer park/green space/concert venue. We could call it the “Lamar Hunt Dos a Cero Park”, or something equally awesome that celebrates it as the historic and holy ground that it is. It could be a great place for the city, the state, the nation, and the sport.
Also, I’d hire Gino Padula to help direct the academy and development program. Best youth sports coach I’ve ever known.
DJ @ WSOTP: Okay man, one last one. Can you give us a sneak peek of what you have in store for the Crew home opener this weekend?
Justin Bell: Besides Columbus’ total domination of Philadelphia? Nope. Let’s just hope for no wind, lots of sun, and 3 points for the Crew.
DJ @ WSOTP: I figured you’d keep it secretive, like any proper #TIFOSWEAT. Well that was a thorough and fun look at the life of a super supporter. Thanks so much for joining me, Justin.
Justin Bell: Not a problem, and my pleasure.