Cloud 9, NWSL, soccer, support group, fan group, Gotham FC
(Photo by Kaitlin Marold - JSN)

They’re on Cloud 9: The Sky's The Limit for NJ/NY Gotham FC’s Supporters Group

“The whole stadium sings with us! The whole stadium sings with us!” The chant and banging drum beat from the far end of the field echoes through the stadium, catching the attention of fans at the game. Only seconds later, the chant changes. A rhythmic, “let’s go, Gotham!” can be heard in every corner of Red Bull Arena, with the whole stadium joining in to energize the players on the field.

These thousands of Gotham fans cheering on their team are being led by the club’s official supporters group, Cloud 9. Situated behind goal in section 101, Cloud 9 is a group of enthusiastic Gotham FC fans who use their passion to create an electric game day environment for both the players and the fans. Whether it’s their chants sung to tunes of various popular songs, or their incredible tifos displaying moving messages to the stadium, Gotham FC games would not be the same without them. 

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was founded in 2012, just after its predecessor league, the Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) folded. Back then, NJ/NY Gotham FC was known as Sky Blue FC. The team, which had won a WPS championship in 2009, was now part of the newly founded NWSL. They would rebrand to Gotham FC for the 2021 season after moving the games from Yurcak Field at Rutgers University to their new home at Red Bull Arena. 

Started From The Bottom...

Fans of soccer throughout the world know how big of an impact supporters group sections make at games. However, from 2012 to 2014, there was no official supporters group for Sky Blue FC. Cloud 9 President Jen Muller explained that although she was not there in those early years, it was during that time when the Cloud 9 idea was born. It began with barely half a dozen fans hoping to create an even more compelling game day experience for the players and fans. It wasn’t until 2015 when Muller, a long time soccer fan, decided to get involved. She brought with her some experience having been on the board for the Red Bull’s supporters group the Empire Supporters Club. Together with founding member Melissa Correa, the official Cloud 9 was born. They launched memberships, began sending out out iconic supporters scarves, and started sitting together leading chants at games. 

Even after Cloud 9 was official, it took the group a minute to find their stride. Back when Sky Blue FC played at Rutgers, finding a place for the group proved a challenge. The group originally sat by the beer garden, but they ended up being heckled by fans of visiting teams. The crowd was unable to really even hear them. They eventually moved to the bleachers and sat in what was serendipitously section 9. This move to the bleachers made it easier to get people on board. 

Any longtime follower of the club will tell you, it has not always been easy to be a fan. In 2018, Sky Blue FC finished last in the league. That summer, reports started circulating regarding questionable club conditions, including problems with training facilities, player housing, and travel issues. Australian striker Sam Kerr, a former Sky Blue FC player who played for the Chicago Red Stars at the time, made waves during a post game interview after scoring a hat trick against the club at Rutgers. “I wish things were better here," Kerr said. "I’m just going to say the girls deserve better and I’m just going to leave it at that. These girls are great girls. They give everything of themselves for this club and this league and they just deserve better."

Cloud 9 did not stay quiet about the club’s need to make changes. They released a statement the next day, urging the club to listen to their players and the fans. 

By 2019, it started to become clear that the club was taking things seriously. They brought in a new general manager and head coach, and scheduled a couple of games in August and September at Red Bull Arena. According to Cloud 9 president Jen Muller, this move to Red Bull was “a long time coming.” The supporters group has a lot of crossover with fans of the Red Bulls, and as a group they had been pushing and hoping for so long to have games there. “It’s great for us, but seeing the joy on the player’s faces walking into the stadium, it’s about them!” Muller said. In September of 2019, Cloud 9 raised their second tifo at Red Bull Arena. 

...Now We're Here

By 2020, the club had permanently moved to the arena and also had access to the top notch Red Bull training facilities. Unfortunately, the club did not get to play out the 2020 season at Red Bull due to COVID-19, and played a condensed season out in Utah in a bubble with the rest of the teams in the league. As of 2021, the newly rebranded Gotham FC now calls Red Bull Arena their home. When Cloud 9 heard about a possible rebrand, they were surprised to learn it was happening this season. Many members participated in focus groups to give the club input on the rebrand. “At first, I was hesitant,” Muller said of the new Gotham name. “We started getting all these Batman tifo requests!” However, the new name started to grow on the members of Cloud 9. They were most pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response of the general public. "Some rebrands of soccer in the U.S. have fallen flat,” Muller explained. “You can tell the clubs that have spoken to their fans.” When asked if Cloud 9 would also consider a rebrand, Muller emphatically said no. “We’re sticking with Cloud 9,” she explained. “It’s our identity.” The group did change their colors on the logo to more closely align with Gotham, but they are keeping their name and identity no matter what. “It doesn’t have to make sense!” Muller joked. 

With more space at the arena came more of a chance for Cloud 9 to grow, and that’s what they’ve done. Muller was pleased that they have grown in membership, but noted that it’s been tough to get more people chanting and singing with them. The group’s slogan is “Fun Loud,” and that’s what they want to be. Now that they’re at Red Bull, they are able to utilize the pulley system to create larger tifos. “Our tifo game is getting stronger,” Muller said, highlighting this as a way in which the group has been able to evolve over the years. She explained that they have their tifo game “down to a science.” After conferring on a theme with co-founder Melissa Correa, they use schematics and sketches to design the tifo with help from Cloud 9 member Natalie Lazo. They have use of space at the stadium, and more members come to help paint. How long it takes depends on how detailed the tifo is, and it can be tedious. “It’s literally watching paint dry,” Muller chuckled. The tifo process helps to bring people in to work on them together. On May 15, 2021, the newly rebranded Gotham FC played their first match at Red Bull Arena, and Cloud 9 celebrated with a tifo that caught the attention of NWSL fans around the world. 

A key part to leading a supporters group is communication with the front office. Muller explained that she is in touch with operations for the stadium weekly for their step-ups, and noted that this communication is very important. It is important to Cloud 9 to find a balance between retaining their independence and also having a relationship with the club where they listen. If something isn’t going right or they have suggestions, Gotham does a good job at hearing them, even with a small front office. 

Running a supporters group does not come with a paycheck, but it can be an immensely rewarding experience for those who participate. One of the more meaningful parts for Muller is seeing all the new people who come in. She herself was once a new person coming into the NWSL, and she has learned a lot over the years. She no longer measures their success by how full their section is, but by the people that are in it. If people hesitate to come alone to a game, Cloud 9 will immediately welcome them in. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes it worthwhile,” Muller said. Even so, getting more participation has been one of the biggest challenges, especially during a game. The tri-state area is a very saturated sports market. Overall, attendance at the stadium has been down. Whether that’s because people are at other events or they are taking their vacations that were postponed due to COVID, sometimes there’s just too much going on to get to a game. 

Above The Clouds

The advocacy of Cloud 9 goes above and beyond the club level. They hope to push the NWSL for change, too. One such change Muller highlighted was the need for better broadcasting. Better broadcasts get more sponsors, not just more people watching. Muller cited issues with broadcasts both visually and from a commentary standpoint. She believes this is something the league could work on to improve the overall experience. 

Cloud 9 is not the only supporters group in the league. They are joined by groups for the nine other teams that make up the NWSL. Washington Spirit’s supporters group The Spirit Squadron is Cloud 9’s closest group, both in distance and in collaboration. “We’ve become good friends with them,” Muller said. Once at a Spirit game, Cloud 9 travelers unexpectedly ended up spending a lot of time with the Spirit Squadron. “I tell the story of the 8 hour long tailgate for a game that was postponed to the next day!” Muller said. In addition to other NWSL clubs, Muller has connections with supporters groups in other leagues across the country. The group is a member of the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) which promotes supporters’ culture in North America. Supporters groups from leagues including  MLS, NWSL, and USL make up the over 100 members of the ISC. Muller explained how the ISC is a great resource to share best practices, get advice from other groups, and start collective action. One such initiative taken by supporters groups in the NWSL over the past two years is the Activating Communities Through Support (ACTS) fundraiser. During the last two challenge cups, supporters could pledge a certain monetary amount per goal for their team, and the contributions are then donated to organizations in their area. This year, Cloud 9 pledged $506 to Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)’s New York Chapter. 

Muller is a Gotham FC fan through and through. When asked if there was any player she would love to see play for the team, she said, “I’m good with the team we have!” And most fans would agree with her. Gotham FC is a contender for a playoff spot, has the best defense in the league, and is about to welcome home three players from the Olympics, two of whom won the gold. It seems like Gotham FC is definitely on Cloud 9. 

Get Involved

Muller's advice to any new fan is, "Support your local club!" You can become an official Cloud 9 member by visiting their pinned tweet on Twitter. Join them in Section 101 at the next home game at Red Bull Arena on August 29 when Gotham FC welcomes home their returning Olympians

 

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