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Passion Knows No Bounds: How One Premier League Fan Community Thrives In The U.S.
The community of Asheville, North Carolina packs more than just craft brews and stunning vistas. It's also home to a burgeoning Premier League fan scene.
Perched atop his booze-splashed throne, Cameron Mendel strikes a presence alien to most average bar patrons, but then again, there’s nothing average about Mendel or his pub of choice, Olde London Road.
In Asheville, North Carolina's preeminent English watering hole, the typical barstool prophet has been replaced with ardent disciples of the English Premier League like Mendel who, under the many EPL club flags draped from the ceiling like medieval gonfalons, feverishly consume match after match with unwavering eyes.
As the Liverpool chants resound through the bone-rattling sound system, Mendel, who runs video villages on film and television sets, makes quick work of choosing a TV to focus on amongst the pub’s matrix of 55-inch flatscreens, then positions his pint glass just out of danger from his occasionally thrashing limbs — a hard-learned lesson he’d rather not repeat. With his insatiable thirst for great footy matched only by his love for Asheville’s finest craft brews, Mendel pauses and takes his first sip of frosty ale. Then and only then, with the taste of barley still tickling his taste buds, is he ready. Here, Mendel might not reign as king, but when it comes to watching the beautiful game for the next 90-plus minutes, this is his domain.
Having grown up straddling various youth Olympic development leagues as a player, like the legions of tenacious footy aficionados who grace Olde London Road’s hallowed hall, Mendel cultivated his fiery passion as an English Premier League fan at a young age.
“I have a long history with Liverpool,” Mendel says. “I’ve been watching them since I was 10, and I’m 41 now. That’s more than three decades worth of being a fan. My parents are all into it now, so it’s a family affair when we get together and watch the games.”
“I’m also the guy that gets up at four in the morning to scream at the TV at home as my poor wife tries to sleep in the other room,” continues Mendel. “And if the intensity of the game calls for it, sure, I’ll grab a brew then, absolutely.”
Like Asheville, many American communities have developed their own burgeoning Premier League scenes, offering like-minded fans a place to connect in ways that go beyond score lines and standings. Just this weekend, NBC Sports hosted its latest Premier League Fan Fest in Orlando, a raucous and exuberant event that shows just how passionate U.S. fans have become.
Reflecting on why Asheville in particular has become such a haven for EPL fans, Mendel credits the town’s intrinsically dynamic landscape and the healthy lifestyle it nurtures as the driving forces that organically draws sports-minded people to the area.
“I came from Atlanta where the EPL has a strong fan base, but I’ve been really impressed with [Premier League] fans in Asheville,” reveals Mendel. “There’s definitely a higher percentage of soccer fans [here] than in the ATL — there are five co-ed adult teams here alone — and people here seem to be more into sports in general, even the people you wouldn’t expect like my tax attorney who’s a huge Premier League fan.”
Ryan Kelley, president of the Asheville City Soccer Club, which competes in the United Soccer League (USL) League 2, a semi-professional developmental launch pad, attributes the area’s robust Premier League fandom to Asheville’s desire to elevate both its youth and adult soccer presence.
“Soccer in Asheville has really been the main sport both for watching and playing, going back decades,” Kelley explains. “[Asheville’s] such a close-knit community of people in general, but even more so when it comes to soccer, so that’s why [starting the Asheville City Soccer Club] seemed like such a great fit.”
And “great fit” it was, one that would make even Cinderella jealous. In just a few short years, Kelley and his team at ACSC have not only enjoyed sell-out crowds, season ticket holders and major corporate donors, but they've attracted interest from fans as far-flung as Lyon, France. Furthermore, ACSC has been responsible for sending several of its alums into the MLS and beyond.
Besides Asheville’s role in cultivating a strong EPL fanbase, Kelley looks to some former legends on the USMNT for their role in promoting the league not just in North Carolina, but all throughout the U.S.
“An interesting case study here in the U.S. is Everton because they definitely punch above their weight in terms of the number of Americans who follow them versus those in the UK, and the answer is obvious with Tim Howard and Landon Donovan,” Kelley said. “As people were getting into Premier League in the early 2000s, our [country’s] best players were playing for Everton, so that attachment was created. You can say the same thing with Tottenham since [Clint] Dempsey had a pretty nice run for them. It’s different in England because in a lot of ways, your fandom was based on where you were from.”
For Kelley and others, former pitch wizards and other athletes residing in Asheville form a strong throng of Premier League fans, but even if kicking a soccer ball makes your toes curl — not in a good way — fear not. According to Amber Arthur, owner of Olde London Road, who’s self-tasked with celebrating soccer’s underappreciated culture, Asheville’s still the place to be if you have any inkling to explore Premier League fandom.
"I've said for 10 years I wanted to open a sports bar in Asheville because there's not a proper sports bar here," Arthur mentioned to the Asheville Citizen Times in 2019. "And when I started watching soccer ... I thought [its culture] would be even more fun — there's a different crowd, and I could have a fun menu."
"This is really about catering to the fans and the locals," added Arthur. "I think tourists are great, but we really want to make the watching experience enjoyable."
Olde London Road hasn’t just made the soccer viewing experience enjoyable, its lively atmosphere has also provided a much-needed footy headquarters for those seeking camaraderie such as Alexis Gali, a Puerto Rico native and staunch Liverpool supporter who met one of his now best friends at the pub, Brent Ludwig, a Wolves fan and native of Charlottesville, Virginia. Though their backgrounds are worlds apart, their love for the Premier League brought them closer than they ever would’ve imagined, despite them feverishly rooting for different clubs.
“We’re friends, but we get into it,” reveals Gali as he pokes Ludwig about his Wolves treading water just two spots above relegation. “People think we’re fighting, but we’re just talking s***.”
“I moved to ATL from Puerto Rico at 19,” Gali adds. “My interest [in the EPL] started there. Then, I moved here and just found such a great community. We’ll even drive to Raleigh to meet up with other fans to watch the game. I’ve even gone to weddings from people who I’ve met here [at Olde London Road].”
“Honestly, it’s this place,” asserts Ludwig. “I went to a Denver soccer bar where 200 people were screaming, and I was like, ‘Why doesn’t Asheville have this?’ Then Amber and her team opened this place, and that was it for me. It’s just a special place.”
Checking back in with Mendel, his pint’s managed to remain unscathed by any impassioned gesticulation despite a challenging match for Liverpool. Even at 41, one can tell his sinewy striker’s frame still yearns to rip it up on the pitch, and with the way things are going for the Reds, maybe Jurgen Klopp should look to an Asheville hero to right the ship.
“If you know Premier League, you understand what’s at stake and hope the best for your boys, understanding they’re up against a bit of a tidal wave sometimes,” Mendel groans as the final whistle blows. “As a Premier League fan, some days you just kinda have to grab the goal post and hang on.”