It wasn't so long ago that the Cascadian supporters' groups were in a state of near-panic. The Seattle Sounders front office had announced its intention to limit away supporters to 150 tickets per game, the same number mandated by Major League Soccer as a league minimum. It was obviously too few: Vancouver and Portland were already slinging over 200 fans between each others' grounds for weekday playoff games on short notice in the second division. Supporters in all three cities had been looking forward to the trips up and down Cascadia as a highlight of the 2011 season and were shocked that the ticket allocation would be so paltry. Many individuals announced their intention to purchase tickets anyway, whether in the designated away section or not, increasing the possibility of unpleasant misunderstandings between fans. Nobody, outside of the front offices in question, was anything but horrified by 150 tickets.
Last week, the front offices of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, and Portland Timbers announced that the restrictions had been relaxed. Cascadia rivals will receive 500 seats each for away supporters. By MLS standards, it's a formidable away allocation: as stated above, the league standard is 150 seats and very few away supporters take advantage of even that many. MLS standards require that designated away sections be sold only to members of league-recognized supporters groups (though there are signs that standard may be slipping), and the Cascadian supporters rightly expect to sell out those 500 seats at every game.
The reaction from the three supporters' groups has been cautious and could be fairly summed up as "well, it's better than nothing". The statement issued by the Vancouver Southsiders observed that 500 seats would probably be enough to satisfy the travelling Vancouver supporters, but not supporters travelling to Vancouver. Generally, the supporters were pleased by the concession and hopeful that more would come in future seasons. The away tickets will be sold through the away clubs' front offices and presumably distributed by the supporters' groups, meaning that there should be no problems with unfamiliar fans sneaking in and causing trouble. It's a good, but not perfect, arrangement.
Those are my feelings as well. I'm pleased that I'll have the chance to go to Seattle and Portland, and I'm pleased that both Seattlites and Portlanders will have the opportunity to visit the right side of the border. As I wrote just yesterday, I think that away support is a big part of a first-class soccer environment. This is a major step towards that goal, as well as an indication that all three front offices do care about bringing a world-class vibe to their respective markets.
It's progress. We're not there yet, of course, but I can understand why Major League Soccer is being so conservative. From their perspective, this could be a dangerous process to rush.
I can't be entirely dissatisfied with the number of tickets allocated. The concept of organized, strong, and overwhelming away support is one Major League Soccer is still getting used to. Long-time MLS observers will recall the horrorshow that was Toronto FC's visit to the Columbus Crew in 2009, when overzealous Columbus cops swarmed and tazered a Toronto FC fan after Columbus and Toronto fans got a little too close and personal post-game. The next visit from Canadian fans to Columbus was for a 2009 Gold Cup match, and that time a considerable detachment of Columbus police and private security sequestered the Canadian supporters in one end of the stadium: a doubly comic overreaction given that there weren't more than thirty of us at that game.
The lesson is not that soccer fans are rowdy hooligans (for bickering between opposing fans, and far worse, happen at CFL, NFL, and NHL games every week). The lesson is that MLS still isn't quite comfortable with large groups of opposing fans. They're not quite sure how to deal with them. Explaining that the core members of the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver supporters' groups have relationships that go back years doesn't get us too far, nor does pointing out that after last year's Vancouver - Portland playoff tie the Timbers Army and Southsiders went out for beers together. The MLS front office may know full well that rivalry doesn't always equal enmity, but they're also afraid that some Johnny-come-lately fan is going to think Green Street was a documentary and give MLS a black eye that they have so far almost managed to avoid.
Now, consider that Seattle is the most successful team in Major League Soccer at the gate. Portland has a relatively small stadium that they're fully expecting to sell out, and Vancouver will also be in the upper echelon of MLS attendance. This isn't Columbus, where those Toronto fans will at least buy tickets in the stadium that otherwise would have gone empty. In a Cascadia Cup match, every seat in Vancouver that a Sounders supporter takes is a seat that otherwise would have gone to a Whitecaps fan. We supporters may be bewildered that Major League Soccer would ever want to discourage a vibrant atmosphere, supporters' chants dueling throughout the ground, making for both a great in-person experience and great television. But Major League Soccer is probably equally bewildered that we're expecting them to take "safe" home team seats and give them to potentially-rowdy visitors when the home town fans' money is just as good as the visitors'. Moreover, reserving away tickets is a risk: if the Vancouver front office was to reserve 1,500 seats for Cascadian away fans, but both the Whitecaps and the Timbers stank out of the gate and fell right into the basement, the Whitecaps would face the unpalatable possibility of holding over a thousand unsellable tickets if the Timbers Army didn't want to make the long trip for a meaningless game.
In this environment, 500 seats for away supporters really isn't bad. It's an unquestioned victory for the supporters' groups in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, who lured the front offices into a concession they were by no means obliged to make. It's true that the Cascadia Cup is nowhere near what it could be if 1,500 or 2,000 away fans made the trip for every game. But now the onus is on the supporters to prove their mettle: to sing, chant, cheer, stamp, and electrify every ground in Cascadia, while at the same time behaving with their traditional decorum and respect that will prove to the front offices of the league that not only are away supporters viable parts of your business, but they're great fun for your fans at home and on television.
I'm not worried about that happening. We may have only 500 seats in 2011, but by 2013 I bet that number will be going way up.