Recently, many soccer supporters associated with lower-division clubs in the United States have discussed security and safety for traveling fans as a concern. On Saturday, the North American Soccer League (NASL) convened a supporters summit where this was raised as a key issue. The league is committed to improving safety standards for its teams.
Security concerns have grown around lower division grounds in the United States as more and more fans become engaged in the beautiful game. It’s a concern that has bothered me personally for years as lower division teams generally spend less money on security and have less staff operational experience than teams in Major League Soccer.
The growth of supporters groups for lower division clubs, particularly in the second-tier NASL and third-tier USL-PRO and the regional clusters of these clubs, has led to more traveling fans, which in-turn has led to more incidents, albeit minor incidents of violence. With smaller crowds, and a greater percentage of the crowds being made up by members of supporters groups, home or traveling, the potential for an incident at this level is much greater than at the top-flight Major League Soccer level.
As the traveling support continues to grow in lower-division American soccer, steps need to be taken by NASL, USL-PRO, USL-PDL and the NPSL to ensure the safety of traveling fans. Standard operations procedures and minimum standards for security around traveling fans must be promoted and maintained. NASL looks poised to take these steps, but I have not seen or heard of the other leagues making similar moves. They must take this situation seriously.
I know NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson takes this matter very seriously, but as a league official he can only do so much. NASL teams as well as clubs in the other lower divisions need to emphasize security and operations procedures when they formulate preseason budgets, staff requests and stadium management processes. Team staffs must be properly trained to deal with traveling fans and understand what the supporters’ culture entails.
The tendency of lower-division clubs to hire operations or management staff with little experience in this particular sport also creates problems. While Commissioner Peterson and his counterparts at the other lower division leagues can emphasize fan safety, engagement and security, it is ultimately up to the home team to enforce these standards. Too often, we see a lack of understanding of supporters groups and how they differ from traveling fans in other sports.
While I don’t want to be an alarmist, I have felt for some time we are teetering on the edge of potentially having a horrible incident at some lower-division ground in the United States. Authorities and team officials sticking their heads in the sand until that incident occurs will only make it a certainty. Action needs to be taken now, and that action has to be taken by lower-division teams. Planning for 2014 must include more money and emphasis on fan security.
My greatest fear is we have an incident and the soccer-hating elements of the mainstream American press will jump on the incident and use it in an effort to marginalize the sport. This could either prove to be the last gasp of an old-order or a new challenge we must overcome to make this sport acceptable in North America. In either event, it is a bridge none of us should want to cross.