Arsenal are back in the United States with a chance to connect with their global fanbase, which worked its way into their away kit release on Monday. Celebrating supporters in the “Little Islingtons” around the world, the kit has special significance to Arsenal supporter and local activist Aston Mack out of Orlando, who was distinctly noticed in 2020 wearing an Arsenal shirt at a local Black Lives Matter protest.
After that made the round on social media, the Orlando Gooners local supporters group reached out and Arsenal also kept him on their radar inviting him to travel with the team during their U.S. tour this summer.
Mack founded the Orlando Freedom Fighters, a group looking to use a data-driven approach to pursue justice on all levels, including social, economic and environmental. After hitting impasses working with the city of Orlando, the Freedom Fighters found ways to circumvent the city. Recently they wrote a grant to the Environmental Protection Agency to get a resilience hub built to service the historic neighborhoods of Washington and Parramore. That hub has been used as a community center, emergency shelter and even as a community garden to help combat food deserts in the area.
Mack and Martin Odegaard sat down with CBS Sports to talk about what it means to be involved with the tour while also launching the away kit on home soil. Arsenal has a massive fanbase and even Mikel Arteta joked after Saturday’s preseason match against Everton in Baltimore that “there were 40,000 fans and 35,000 of them were Arsenal fans.” That support was absorbed by the Arsenal players on the field.
Mack’s particular Arsenal story begins like most Americans. He was introduced to the sport by playing — and beating his friends in — the EA Sports video game. He didn’t grow up with a team nor have allegiances to a specific club. He tried supporting Chelsea due to his favorite color being blue but the art of Arsenal kept pulling at him.
“If you’ve ever seen a [Arsene] Wenger team play, it’s like art. There’s no way that you cannot be attracted to that. And try as I might, I fell in love. Like, I tried to stay away and I tried to be a part of another team, but I could not escape,” Mack said. “Not only just the way that we were playing, but then I remember it just took one postmatch interview from Wenger to go. That’s the guy you know and it’s something, there’s a class that oozes out of Arsenal that just draws you in.”
Wenger helped teach Mack how to be a man, from the way he carries himself with class, to his passion for the game. But this tour was Mack’s first up-close time with the players.
“This is surreal. I’ve gotten to see them in a stadium in 2014 when they did the New York tour, but like actually getting to interact with them, see them behind the scenes and honestly, getting to see their personalities off of the pitch fills me with pride,” Mack said.
The feeling is mutual when it comes to Odegaard and the rest of the squad.
“Yeah, I think that’s a good thing [being able to connect with fans in the U.S.]. It’s not so easy to travel to London every time to watch your game,” Odegaard said. “So it would be nice to see the fans here, to connect with them and hopefully give them some good moments with the games. And yeah I think we all want to enjoy it and to give something back to the fans for supporting us.”
The launch took place in Mack’s hometown of Orlando, which he described as a dream that he hopes never ends. When it comes to the intangibles that he speaks about when discussing the club, the fact that Arsenal not only came to Orlando but also tapped him to be involved with the release means a lot. Arsenal have also taken time to discuss some of the local issues in Orlando with Mack.
“I think it’s a good thing that we release the kit here and to show that we’re grateful for the support that we have here in the United States,” Odegaard said.
The new kit will be worn for the first time on Wednesday, July 20 when the team faces Orlando City SC at Exploria Stadium as part of the FC Series preseason friendlies. Embodying the connection between Gooners everywhere, the passion and commitment to overseas supporters shows.