MLS has now for years struggled to bring passion to is stadiums. American pro sports are known the world over for having casual, somewhat disinterested supporters based on European or Latin American standards. For MLS’ first decade of existence, these types of fans seemed to be the majority in MLS stadiums, and thus the league was seen as an ugly stepchild of football by true fans of the game. The quality of play while poor by any objective standard wasn’t as poor as many of the European oriented fans claimed: in fact by 2000, MLS having adopted international timing rules resembled a non low tier European league with some bright stars. Yet those ethnic fans and others of the European ilk who enjoy football still wouldn’t give MLS a fair opportunity.
Thus the league continued with a few bright spots like RFK Stadium, here and there scattered among a wide swath of passionless football, two words that in the international vocabulary do not belong in the same sentence. What’s worse is after 2001 the quality of play in MLS dipped substantially. During these dark ages the league actually cemented its long term presence on the American sporting scene by cutting costs and maintaining the loyalty of enough fans that the casual crowds we saw during the 1996-2001 time period became more vocal and passionate despite the inferiority of the league’s quality between 2002 and 2006.
That passion allowed the league to begin to take chances as it did when it adopted the designated player rule in late 2006 and began signing high the type of high profile international players MLS had been missing since 2001. The change in league rules put a firm spotlight on MLS both in the American sports scene and by the foreign press. It also made MLS more acceptable as a sporting choice both for mainstream American fans indifferent to the sport and for European football fans who looked down upon MLS.
With this change of landscape, new challenges have emerged which MLS to this point seems to have ignored. No question exists that MLS is sweaty about attendance numbers and the type of fan that may have seemed undesirable in the league’s early years now are being targeted. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: but it is a potentially dangerous thing if not done within reason.
Dougie Brimson, a noted author, screenwriter and expert on Hooliganism spoke to me late last week and mentioned several factors which led him to meet with MLS officials last year. His meeting with MLS officials went well enough but a lack of follow up by the league has led to a host of recent episodes after the situation was “kicked off” by Toronto FC in the first match this season when they had several thousand fans travel to Columbus. Columbus police lieutenant Kevin Conley said numerous incidents took place with TFC supporters in Columbus.
“Any game is disappointing when you have a crowd that’s not acting well or, let’s say, sociable,” Conley said. “We don’t mind a little bit of drinking, or a little bit of fans cheering and rowdiness. But at the same time, if we come in and ask you to quiet it down and stop the behavior, we kind of expect a little bit of co-operation.” Conley also said Toronto fans had been urinating on a chain link fence that bordered the field, even though it looked onto a church across the street. The churchgoers called police, and one man was arrested.
“”They’re pissing all over the damn place, and as you can see, they’ve littered it up considerably,” Conley said. “And then they decided that they were going to surround one of our cars like they were the Indians and the car was Custer.”
That same day, several TFC fans stormed the Crew Stadium pitch during the match and tried to tackle Columbus GK Will Hesmer. Clearly the effort was not organized and the fans were ejected but still the incident was worrying.
“”You know what? Part of the sporting spirit is being antagonistic,” said Andrew Gorsky, a 22-year-old Toronto fan. “You can’t deny it.”
This is part of the problem. When Toronto FC joined MLS they had a number of fans, not a majority by any stretch of but enough were outspoken enough in saying that Americans fan lacked passion at football matches and they were going to show Americans how to support the sport and their club. This I find ironic considering less than ten years ago when the U.S. played Canada in a World Cup qualifier the match was held at a small high school stadium. Perhaps that experience awakened the Canadians to their own faults as football fans and now they are determined to “show the Americans.” (The US clinched a World Cup birth that day and the whole experience seemed surreal because instead of being in a big stadium or either cheering or hostile fans the crowd was a smallish high school like crowd made up largely of American fans who had crossed the border for the match.)
When New York visited Toronto several marauding groups of drunken fans tore apart several GO commuter rail cars. Here are some video and photo links thanks to MLS Rumors.
That same night ESPN cameras picked up a number of incidents including that of a TFC fan storming the pitch and behaving inappropriately. The next day on the popular ESPN program PTI where Soccer is only mentioned during the World Cup, Mike Wilbon who has been far more supportive of MLS than his other snobbish colleagues hit out at the Toronto fans for ruining the sporting atmosphere. This is part of the risk that those soccer fans in the U.S. and Canada who live in a vacuum fail to understand or appreciate. Part of the sporting media’s resentment of international football as a sport derives from what they perceive as a violent culture around the game. Whether this is right or wrong (I happen to think it is wrong)does not really matter. If given the opening, these powerful sports writers have the bully pulpit to bury the perception of MLS before it gets anywhere near attaining the level of penetration in the North American sporting market that is possible.
The incidents have not been limited to Toronto FC supporters. As Dougie Brimson noted in my interview with him, he believes a copy cat culture feeds Hooliganism worldwide and that since TFC “kicked off” the MLS Hooligan culture it will take an extensive effort to reign it in elsewhere in MLS. What has become obvious is that Brimson’s dire predictions have come to pass.
In Houston minutes after a draw with Chivas USA two Saturday’s ago, a member of the El Battalion supporters group stabbed a Chivas supporter in the middle of a large fight between fans of the two teams. I have spoken to a number of Houston supporters including a few in the Texian Army, the largest supporters group of the Dynamo and they are concerned about the situation. The Dynamo however I am assured are serious about containing this problem and the following home match against Colorado contained no incidents.
Chivas USA according to Luis Bueno one of the top soccer writers in the country, and a frequent American Soccer Show guest has had to take steps to ban a supporters group. This is Luis’ report from Sideline Views:
If you watched the Chivas USA-New England match, you may have noticed the large number of empty seats at the match. While this is nothing new – empty seats commonly outnumber filled ones at Chivas home games – what was different from this particular match was the absence of a certain fan group.
Legion 1908 was not present at the match, and no the Mexican Chivas did not have a reserve-laden match within driving distance on Sunday.
Apparently, a member of Legion and a member of the new Chivas USA supporters group Union Ultras were involved in some sort of altercation. A Chivas staffer told us that one member of each group committed an “act of violence” at the last Chivas USA match at HDC, on April 26 against the Galaxy. Apparently, there was one altercation inside the stadium and a retaliatory one outside.
So this brings us to another key point of my conversation with Dougie Brimson. The possibility for violence between supporters groups of the same club. I have received a few reports from other MLS cities that tensions have arisen between more “mainstream” groups and “fringe” groups supporting the same club before and after matches but this is the first reported incident of the nature.
Brimson also fears the amount of European football available on television in the US now that was not available in MLS’ early days is also contributing to a growing Hooligan culture. Much of this he fears is due to a dropout element in society that use football to organize what is essentially gang like behavior. Most of these individuals are between the ages of 17 and 24, are Caucasian and are looking for a release from the difficult side of life, according to Brimson. This feeds Hooliganism in Europe and the accessibility of information about European football now feeds this culture in North America.
It doesn’t have to be this way to bring passion to the matches. DC United has for years had an incredible atmosphere at RFK Stadium with a mix of ethnic groups and socio economic groups as well. The accessibility of RFK to Metro Orange and Blue lines has given the Red and Black a cosmopolitan feel at games, and an incredible atmosphere to boot, an atmosphere contrary to the writings of some, I believe is far superior to anything the Toronto supporters have produced. The LA Galaxy has averaged over 20,000 fans for most the league’s existence in a very saturated sports market and has had very little trouble with violence or hooligan like behavior. DC United and the LA Galaxy have given MLS a good name and in no small irony have also been the league’s two most successful franchises on the field and at the gate.
As Brimson suggests, fans have to be the ones as they were in England to take charge of this situation and put a stop to it. The leadership of mainstream supporters groups need to continue to work with the clubs and league officials to stamp out this growing culture before it goes much further. But avoiding the issue or sticking our heads in the sand as some seem to be doing isn’t going to solve the problem. Nor is assuming hooliganism and passion are synonymous. They most certainly are not. Understanding that, and acknowledging that a problem exists are the first step in curing it. The rest from that point could be comparatively simple.