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Counterproductive Paranoia in Cascadia

In lieu of the game day news and notes (Hassli hurt, Rochat resting, no other new news), please accept this timely editorial on supporters trouble in Cascadia.

A few months ago, fans of the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers, and the Vancouver Whitecaps gathered in Seattle, Washington for the preseason Cascadia Supporters' Summit. The Sounders were obviously concerned about security at little Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Washington, so they were very careful to separate the fans into different stands. Whitecaps fans would stand in temporary aluminium bleachers on one side of the field, and Sounders or Timbers fans would stand in the permanent grandstand on the other.

Unfortunately, in all this conscientiousness, they forgot that this was Tukwila, Washington, and there was only one place for supporters to gather pre-game besides any of a dozen crappy casinos or a 7-11: the little stadium pub/pizzeria located near the complex entrance. I was there and I'll never forget the moment we Whitecaps supporters, at least sixty strong, encountered the Seattle Sounders supporters. The resulting brawl will live in infamy. Guys were getting tossed off the balcony. I bit one dude's ear off. It was brutal.

No, wait, of course that didn't happen. What really took place was that Sounders and Whitecaps fans pretty much kept to themselves, interacted civilly when they didn't, and shared a rather confined space without even the threat of violence. Whitecaps and Timbers fans got along even better; a bunch of us wound up standing on the same grass in the end zone during the second half of our game and bantered good-naturedly.

This is the rule, not the exception, in North America. Sure, there are occasional incidents between individuals, but that goes for CFL, NFL, MLB, and NHL games too. Yet certain front offices insist on treating all supporters like probable felons. Today, the Portland Timbers travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders, and the conditions imposed by the Seattle front office would do a prison lockdown proud.

I have ranted about this subject in the past, but it keeps coming up. Someday, North American soccer officials will learn to treat their fans like fans and not like convicts. The sooner that day comes, the better.

We always hear about the intensity of the Cascadia derbies, of course, particularly between Seattle and Portland. I've been told in no uncertain terms by people who'd know that it's no big deal against Vancouver but boy, there might be fireworks when Seattle and Portland collide. That's a very old rivalry not just in soccer but regionally; like Montreal and Toronto, there's always something at stake between those two cities no matter what the competition.

Still, the hysteria in Seattle is almost palpable. Sounders officials are insisting that Portland fans all arrive by bus in an organized group. They are to be admitted into the ground not less than an hour before game time: any later and the fans won't be let in. They are to be tightly restricted to their section and kept in well after the final whistle until all the Sounders fans have dispersed. They may be asked to show photo identification just to get into the stadium, and fans wearing Portland colours elsewhere at Qwest Field are subject to summary ejection. The terms to be endured by Vancouver Whitecaps fans are only a little less restrictive (for example, Vancouver fans are apparently allowed to arrive at the game other than by bus).

And for what? Out of a risk that two people both there to watch a soccer game might riot if they even slightly intermingle? This sort of hysteria helps nobody. If anything, it convinces fans of both teams that there's something to be afraid of. Those Emerald City Supporters/Timbers Army members must be really terrifying firms if they have to be penned up like this! The more you treat fans like hooligans, the more they'll act like it, if only out of frustration or out of fear.

"Ah, but what about the lone loon?" you may be asking. That one supporter who is there to cause trouble, or who gets a little carried away? The guy in brand new team gear who nobody's ever seen before and who smuggles a boxcutter in his jock because security was a little too lax?

That lone supporter exists in every sport and somehow they've managed to survive. A police incident outside a Canucks game is routine, after all, and extra cops are kept on hand at public expense to deal with the inevitable. The lone loon is a fact of life whereever tens of thousands of passionate, possibly drunk fans to watch a game. Hell, there's been bits of individual trouble outside Sounders games and the sky has not fallen. Other sports manage to deal with it and Major League Soccer shall be no different.

The one thing that teams like the Sounders should not do is the very thing they are doing, and that is encourage a siege mentality among supporters. If you treat the Timbers Army like they have to be protected from the great mass of Sounders fans, then if that lone loon starts something they'll feel like a very small group in very hostile territory. Why? Because that's exactly what you're saying they are. Do you want that crazy guy in the Portland shirt who's there to start a fight to be shut down and ostracized by his fellow, probably even reported to security, or do you want the fans to wonder if they'll have to defend themselves? And do you want Seattle fans looking on the Timbers Army with scorn and mockery, or with barely-disguised fear because it's been drilled into them that these guys are too dangerous to let into the general population?

I'm not saying make it a free-for-all. Designated supporters sections, for example, are good for both front offices (who get to set aside one section that they can keep an eye on) and supporters groups (who get to concentrate all their songs and all their numbers into one location). But I am saying that front offices must treat supporters like human beings instead of crime risks.

Because when you expect the worst from people, sometimes it just makes it easier for them to live up to your expectations.