The school bus rumbles up Interstate 35W as passengers sip on Surly and sing songs in unison. The man operating the bullhorn in the front seat implores everyone to sing LOUDER!
So they oblige.
The Loons will win the Cup again, hurrah, hurrah.
The Loons will win the Cup again, hurrah, hurrah.
It’s a Saturday night home game for the Minnesota United FC, so members of the team’s support group, the Dark Clouds, are on their way and raring to go.
Originally the brainchild of a dozen soccer-loving fans, Dark Clouds membership has grown to more than 500 official members, and many of them begin game day festivities at Nomad World Pub in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
At 5:15 p.m., two school buses pull up to the curb. The bar empties. A ticket purchased in advance gets each fan a ride to the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine and one cold beer.
The trip lasts long enough to finish the beer and to warm up their vocal cords for a long night of singing.
The Dark Clouds love to sing and dance. And bang drums. And set off smoke machines. And tease opponents with creative wisecracks.
They turn a soccer game into a fun party.
“It feels like pure passion, pure joy,” said Bruce McGuire, a Dark Clouds founding member.
Their passion burns hot even as the United organization faces uncertainty over its pending move to Major League Soccer. A stadium resolution remains a hurdle in the path to becoming a MLS franchise.
Dark Clouds leaders enjoy an amiable relationship with United owner Dr. Bill McGuire and have discussed the pros and cons of joining the MLS with him.
“The message we gave in the end was, we don’t care what league you’re in. We’re here to support the team,” said Bruce McGuire, who is not related to the owner.
The Dark Clouds supported the team long before soccer found mainstream acceptance. The group takes pride in its diverse makeup and “counterculture vibe,” as one longtime member describes it.
Their membership includes men and women, young and old, different races and nationalities. They have doctors and lawyers, janitors and office managers, and a Ph.D. in nanotechnology who brings craft beer to the tailgate.
Matthew and Andrea Worsfold joined the Dark Clouds two years ago and regularly bring their two sons, ages 4 and 2.
“They’ve always experienced it so they’re used to the noise,” Andrea said.
Supporters’ groups like the Dark Clouds are common in soccer. Unlike some groups that espouse anger and aggression, the Dark Clouds use humor as their compass.
“We are an eclectic, inclusive group that tries to be very creative,” said Nachiket Karnik, the group’s director of game day operations.
Even their name is a spoof. Someone in the group noted that you can’t have thunder (a nod to the team’s previous name) without dark clouds, and voilà.
“We thought it would be funny because we’re pretty much all kind of dorky,” Bruce McGuire said.
The Dark Clouds treat games like a 90-minute concert. They stand the entire game and sing songs with lyrics that have been changed to promote the United or specific players.
They’ve rewritten songs by the The Beatles, Beastie Boys and Biz Markie, among others. An ode to United forward Christian Ramirez is an altered version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
United players have approached the group requesting their own personal song. Their catalog of songs is as diverse as the group.
“I’ve always loved hearing some obscure, weird pop tune and then rewriting it for the team and then introduce it and hope that everyone will sing it with you,” said Wes Burdine, a board member.
They’re skilled at getting under the skin of opposing players and coaches, too. The Dark Clouds heckled current United midfielder Jamie Watson mercilessly for taking a dive as a player for Real Salt Lake back in 2005.
Henceforth, any player who dives is greeted by a chorus of “You dive like Jamie Watson.”
They once goaded an opponent into a red card by heckling him from the moment he entered the stadium. Someone from the section yelled “four minutes to meltdown” right after the national anthem. Sure enough, it happened.
FC Edmonton goalkeeper Lance Parker became an easy target because he also worked as an underwear model.
“You sing ‘Lance, Lance underpants,’ ” Burdine said. “It’s really like 8-year-old humor.”
Their humor comes with rules. No bigotry or swearing in their cheers and songs.
“Cursing is not creative,” Burdine said.
The United organization embraces the support and atmosphere the Dark Clouds create at home games. Dr. McGuire invited key members of the group to dinner after taking control in 2013.
McGuire shared his goals as an owner and sought input and advice from the team’s most loyal fans. McGuire, who visits the Dark Clouds’ pregame tailgate, described them as a “good barometer.”
“They’re really the embodiment of the sport and the passion that goes with the sport, the experience and the involvement obviously for this team,” McGuire said. “They’ve been around for many, many years through ups and downs.”
Their love of soccer and the United binds them. Those slapstick moments that make them laugh often occur spontaneously.
The bus ride back downtown after a disappointing 1-1 tie with Ottawa last Saturday night was more subdued than a few hours earlier. Some sat quietly in the darkness.
But then a beautiful, full-throated rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” started in the back and quickly consumed the entire bus.
The Dark Clouds were still in the mood to sing.