After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Houston turned to its blossoming sports scene in order to bring some normalcy back to the city. Led by Jose Altuve’s bat, the Astros have made it to their first ALCS ever–although they had made the World Series before as part of the National League. The Texans are once again reeling from the loss of JJ Watt, but have found hope in rookie QB Deshaun Watson, who may already be the franchise’s strongest offensive leader to date. Not to mention the Rockets, who have started the season 2-0, including a big opening night win against the Golden State Warriors.
Sometimes overlooked in the bustle of Texas’ biggest city is Houston’s MLS franchise, the Dynamo. They have quietly put together a very strong end to the 2017 season, led by emerging Honduran star, Alberth “La Panterita” Elis. With only one game left in the regular season, they’ve already clinched their spot in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, where they hope to win their 3rd championship. However, while the leader on the field is currently Elis, it’s the rhythm of the stadium that gets the team going.
About an hour before game time, you start to see orange shirts across East Downtown–or EaDo, as it’s come to be known–as the stretch of bars down St. Emanuel Street begin to fill up with Dynamo faithful. On this particular October day, the orange shirts are mixed with face paint, since the Insane Clown Posse is playing down the street at Warehouse Live. Tucked away near BBVA Compass Stadium is the Kings Court bar, where visitors welcomed in by the sounds of cumbia blaring from the speakers.
There are about 50 people in orange enjoying some beers, and it’s not a coincidence: this is where Dynamo fan group and band El Batallón meets before every match. The crowd grows as we get closer to game time, and every person that walks in greeted like family, with hugs and kisses on the cheek. Apart from the orange and black El Batallón shirts, you also see a variety of jerseys, MLS and otherwise. A fan in a Mexico jersey is laughing with a friend in a Honduran jersey.Another fan in an Argentina jersey makes fun of his friend for the USMNT missing the World Cup. That’s the beauty of El Batallón: it’s as diverse as Houston itself.
The idea is to bring the passion of football leagues in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico to the MLS.
About 15 minutes before kickoff, the real party begins, as drums and flags emerge from a backroom. The tamboreada begins, and as the sounds of trumpets and trombones kick in, the procession to the stadium begins. Passersby and a few juggalos join in, and a few “whoop whoops” are heard. The march on the stadium has become somewhat common among MLS teams, but in other cities like Portland and Seattle, the marches are more reminiscent of the chants and scarf-waving typical of European clubs.
In Houston, the inspirations come from further south. The tamboraeda is a rhythmic dance party and everyone is invited. The idea is to bring the passion of football leagues in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico to the MLS. The music stops for a bit as the band gets through an expedited security line; a member of the stadium staff already went by the bar and carded and wrist banded all those old enough to drink. Once inside, the parade picks up again, as they continue the march through the stadium to the north end of the stadium, where they join the other official Dynamo fan clubs, The Brickwall Firm and the Texian Army. The music will not stop for the rest of the match.
The Dynamo are a bit overmatched when facing Sporting Kansas City–who sport the stingiest defense in the league–without their top strikers, who are out due to World Cup qualifiers the night before. Sporting strikes first but the band plays on. I spoke to one of the longest tenured members of the group before the match, Manolo Gutierrez, who told me their goal is “intimidation through jubilation.” Throughout the night, El Batallón will change the song rotation, depending on how the team is doing. Like a dragon boat drummer, they guide their team through a rhythmic hypnosis, while trying to throw their opponent off. The band and the hundreds seated in the fan section sing along all night.
The sound of the tamboreada is all you can hear throughout the stadium; you can barely hear the distant sound of the announcer whenever there is a foul or substitution. The only respite is when the whistle blows halftime; the music stops, as the band moves towards the bathrooms, and to grab a few beers.
The camaraderie is clear among the group: everyone’s buying each other’s cold ones, helping each other carry instruments and bags. When speaking to Gutierrez, he told me their friendship extends beyond the matches; they regularly get together for events and outings. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, members of El Batallon organized collection drives and delivered goods to those who had to take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, around the corner from the stadium. Many of the members even got together to help the Houston community with demolition, clean up and rebuilding. At the stadium or in the community, El Batallón represents what’s best about soccer, about MLS, and about Houston.