Safety Concerns Continue At Lower Division US Soccer Leagues

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.

11 thoughts on “Safety Concerns Continue At Lower Division US Soccer Leagues”

  1. I agree Kartik. The elements for a bad scene are there. I have tickets to my local USL-PDL team and for the first time this year, we had a few visiting supporters groups. In a couple of cases, it was only a handful of traveling fans, but they are noisy and organized. They sang the whole game, played drums, etc. It actually inspired a better environment at the games because the home fans rose to the occasion and sang back. BUT….you could see it getting ugly if there was a little more drinking or the traveling fans were a little more obnoxious or there was some on-field incident like a dirty tackle… can see how it could turn into a “Heck….there are only 3 of those bastards! Let’s smash them!”

    I got to experience it the other way traveling this this same team during the US Open Cup (to a NASL ground). It wasn’t a very good experience as a few home fans taunted us more than they watched the game.

    Heck, even the USMNT isn’t immune…..I went to the Mexico-US game in Columbus and there were NO provisions taken to prevent violence. The Mexican fans were seated right in the middle of a general admission American Outlaws section. They were vastly outnumbered and they got taunted all game, but they also flapped their Mexican flags around so they got in people’s faces, etc. Again….it’s not hard to see how emotion and alcohol could make that a bad scene.

  2. I addressed the following to the management of the minor league (not naming league nor team) soccer team in my city: You want to promote a family atmosphere and, in fact, go to creative lengths to do so, and then you allow any number of people drinking beer to congregate on the railings behind said families. I further informed the team’s management that I could not in good conscience recommend attending their games until and unless this issue is dealt with.

  3. Kartik, I saw this issue alluded to in the post about the Cosmos earlier this week. I’ve only been out to one Cosmos match on Long Island and I didn’t see anything that suggested a violent atmosphere. And since I haven’t seen any problems mentioned elsewhere, I’m just wondering what has happened that has people so worried?

  4. We have had problems a lot in NASL and the honest truth is that the league has been unwilling to deal with it. We had problems in Tampa a few years ago and while the author of this story tried to deal with it his superiors did not care. This has also happened in other games involving other teams in our league. Atlanta in particular does a terrible job of security and the stadium there feels like it could become a war zone.

    The Cosmos security messed up and allowed a bunch of hooligans to enter the Tampa section. Then the Tampa guys, or a few of them chased the hooligans back into their section but started acting hooligans themselves.

    NASL did not react or respond. They swept it under the rug and thus we walked out in a demonstration of supporters unity for 15 minutes on Saturday in the Tampa vs Fort Lauderdale game. I walked out as did the author of the article. He was very good in talking to all of us about safety and needing to make a point to the league about unsafe conditions for fans. He helped lead this and I appreciate this article from him.

    This is about safety and not any particular team, league or personality. We demand accountability and an effort to engage and protect traveling fans.

    If steps are not taken a major incident like we have often have in Latin America is just around the corner.

  5. Somewhere along the way it has become considered that you prove yourself as a supporter or supporter group by stealing others possessions, mainly banners and scarves. It needs to stop before someone ends up severly injured or god forbid deceased over a damn scarf or banner. Kartik, thank you for bringing attention to this issue and keeping it in the foreground.

  6. My 2 cents…..Smoke and fireworks are prohibited in all the US major sporting events. Start by outlawing those…… Atlanta is no more dangerous than the other NASL stadiums……. A traveling fan needs to have thick skin if they wish to venture to another opponents pitch. Supporter abuse exists in the NFL , just try to wear another jersey into Philadelphia or Oakland…..but I agree it is an issue that needs attention ….good points in the article,,,,,

  7. There are fans incidents in every single venue in America. Stop making this out to be something it isn’t.

    Seems like people are just bored because the Cosmos are dominating te league, that bloggers are making up stories.

    1. Fan, the Cosmos may be “dominating” the league but if they don’t spring for adequate security and let fans enter the away section which is what they did on September 28th then these issues occur.

      Also has it occurred to you they are dominating because while in the minor leagues no one gives year long contracts, you must give 8 month contracts…but the Cosmos only had to give 4 month contrast to players with options for next year. So on the same budget they could pay TWICE AS MUCH $$$ to players!

      As a Strikers fan that has seen Traffic Sports cut our budget every year since we started in 2011 I am sick to my stomach over all of this.

  8. I disagree for the most part. Well there have been some incidents these are mostly isolated. Drunk fans doing stupid things or some punk that has watched “Green Street Hooligans” one to many times. The supporters groups (both home and away) can help the situation by policing themselves and creating a more “family friendly” atmosphere. For example if your not going to scream “F*ck you *SSHOLE” at your park because of some agreement with your home team then there is no reason to do so at another park. The same things with fireworks and smoke.

    While I agree that as soccer grows, so will the problems…but unlike other leagues soccer can address those issues now and nip many issues in the bud. They just need to work with the fans. The fans of the lower leagues I’ve found are willing to listen to support the club. Pre-game meeting with both fan groups for example to go over what will and will not be tolerated for example are a good place to start.

    If the teams and the league come down as heavy handed then it just hurts the team, the league and the sport as a whole.

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