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Supporters Week: Is MLS a friend or foe of supporters culture?

Does the league only encourage its hard core fans when its in their best interest?

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Chicago Fire at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It is difficult to find an advertisement for MLS that does not, in some way, play up the excitement supporters groups add to the gameday experience. Indeed, one of the big selling points for soccer in the U.S. and Canada is the unique atmosphere created by these groups who, by and large, have no parallel in other major North American sports.

But some say that this is entirely two-faced behavior and that MLS is often attempting to tie the abilities of supporters groups to offer such a unique and enthralling entertainment spectacle. Others support the league administration in its efforts to create a safe environment that is accessible to fans of all ages and interest levels. This debate is not a new one and is likely to extend for some time. It has roiled Vancouver at times, as many feel that the club does not respect the work the groups put in to provide “the best sporting atmosphere” in the city.

Although it does not affect the Caps as much, pyros is one of the most hotly contested (pun somewhat intended) pieces of this fan culture debate. Supporters sections often would like more freedom to use the devices, which varies widely from club to club. Some municipalities bar smoke (like San Jose or Washington, D.C.) and others have highly active fire marshals who frown upon the practice. Yet other clubs allow it--Houston Dynamo has an expert who works with the group to shoot off smoke bombs.

One of the most controversial fan incidents in recent years occurred in my hometown of Washington D.C. Matt Parsons, a leader of D.C. United’s ultra section, was served with a ban from RFK Stadium for setting off a smoke bomb under a pedestrian bridge while walking to the match. He says the punishment is overly penal and that the club often looks the other way when fans set off such devices in parking lots surrounding the stadium. D.C. United has a ban on such practices inside the arena and Parsons says it was never clear that that policy applied to the entire property.

Now, I have been to a few D.C. United games and am familiar with the area in question and, frankly, I have to question the wisdom of setting a smoke bomb off near a major roadway in a town which is always overly sensitive to concerns about safety and security (hence the fact that fireworks are illegal without a permit). That being said, anyone who has ever been to RFK Stadium (or many other facilities in MLS) know how huge the entire complex is and a smoke bomb set off in a remote parking lot as part of a march to the match in no way has bearing on what is going on in and around the stadium.

D.C. United is not the only team to raise issues over MLS’ treatment of smoke bombs, flares and other pyrotechnics. But there is an undeniable legal risk associated with these activities--in a country where someone will sue after spilling hot coffee on themselves, pyros represent a pretty obvious liability and it’s hard to blame the league for not wanting that, at least in certain municipalities where they are legally restricted. Yet because smoke looks undeniably badass, the league will often use images of fans setting off smoke bombs to promote big matches. The same is true of impressive tifos or banners, which must be pre-approved by clubs. Both of these situations represent inherent contradictions that are unacceptable in the long term.

It’s worth noting that MLS operates in a North American sports culture (and legal system) that is totally unfamiliar with the fan culture that is commonly associated with soccer. Many fans at matches are unfamiliar with the concept of ultras and to them a fan group might be what you associate with a student section in college sports. They are used to the fan experience at other sporting events, where a Jumbotron or cheerleaders (often unsuccessfully) try and pry fans off of their phones and get them cheering on the team.

This is not what supporters groups in soccer are--they are a key part of the club and should be treated as such. They have an outsized role on the matchday experience, both on and off the pitch and it is imperative that front offices work with the groups to ensuring that they feel valued and heard. In the DC United instance, this clearly didn’t happen. This also has not been the case when it has come to tifos and banners and chants, which are often heavily sanitized.

But the league and its clubs do also have a duty to consider the other fans at the match, who may include children, the elderly and those who simply don’t love the idea of the game being punctuated with cherry bombs, expletives or provacative banners. This is the balance MLS must strike and while I feel that they haven’t done a very good job of doing so, one must consider their actions through that lens.

“It's a partnership between the club and supporters’ groups,” the Whitecaps said in a statement to 86 Forever. “This is their club too, and we want to make our best efforts to allow them to drive the atmosphere at the matches. At the same time, we always have to look out for the interests of all guests and make sure everyone who attends a match enjoys the stadium experience.”

The answer? In my mind it is not simply not watching the league or its clubs, which some have suggested as a response. Coordinated action amongst supporters groups across the league is key here. In order to shine light on where MLS’ words do not mesh with its actions, I feel supporters groups should walk out or organize another form of protest that proves that the void left by a well organized and vibrant supporter group is not easily replaced. When a group walks out or sits silently in protest and the team on the pitch underperforms, it is proof that the fans do play a part in boosting a winning team. And when hard core fans stop buying kits, scarves or vastly overpriced beers, that has an impact on club finances.

Hopefully this can drive both MLS, its clubs and its groups to a middle ground that allows for some flares, an f-bomb laced chant or two and an atmosphere that is accommodating to new fans and families. Who knows? Maybe at the next match those fans will find themselves sitting with the Southsiders or another fan group.