It was their second home game, but the first time there existed in the stadium that entity which really makes being at home meaningful: away support in numbers.
It was a hot day in the sun, but the atmosphere crackled as the Fire fans burst into song. The huddled ranks of Toronto fans responded, and when the Canadians scored their first goal of any kind, the stadium exploded. Seat cushions handed out as a pre-game freebie went flying through the air.
Toronto won the game, but apart from an awkward few minutes in the parking lot afterwards, the atmosphere between the fans seemed to promise a respectful rivalry in the making. Fans of both teams drank together after the game. All said it had been a hell of a lot of fun, home and away.
Later in the season, the Toronto fans came down to Chicago in similar numbers, and it seemed Toyota Park was just a little louder than usual that day. A buzz filled the stadium not present when Columbus brings a dozen fans or New England twenty. Any fan worldwide knows the benefit of a healthy rivalry in the stadium, and it’s not foreign to sport in America either, as a college football fan will tell you.
This budding rivalry in MLS could have doubled in intensity this season to something special. Section 8 Chicago, the Chicago Fire Independent Supporters’ Association, requested 500 tickets at BMO Field for the sole game in Toronto this season. Given Toronto are taking 2,000 to Columbus for the opener, they’d surely have matched that 500 themselves in Chicago.
But it won’t happen. In fact, Chicago will take only around 100 to Toronto, and Toronto should be restricted to the same number in Chicago. An opportunity to build atmospheric games and rivalries that MLS badly needs will be lost.
Why? Because of the short-sighted nature of one front office and a notable lack of interest in the issue of away support emanating from MLS headquarters. Section 8 Chicago have more-or-less been told they’re lucky to be getting even 100 tickets this season for Toronto, even though the request has been standing for some time.
And despite being pressed tirelessly by the Chairman of S8C, Ben Burton, MLS headquarters seems to see the issue as far less pressing than arranging David Beckham’s next shoe-shine (MLS headquarters did not respond to a request from me on the issue made several weeks ago).
The paradox is MLS will use supporters’ groupings such as Section 8 and Toronto FC’s Red Patch Boys and U-Sector to market the league. They’ll post photos on their websites of the dynamic support, they’ll speak of the passion shown by the hundreds of TFC or Chicago fans heading to Columbus, they’ll pose for photos with the Sons of Ben when they announce Philadelphia’s expansion. They’ll say it’s what marks soccer out from other professional sports here.
And then they’ll do little to promote this by supporting those who wish to travel in numbers, in terms of organisation and security, surely a growing issue.
Ben Burton, S8C Chairman, told Pitch Invasion of his frustration and concerns it could eventually lead to safety problems if away support is not properly organised as the league grows:
I’ve been in discussion with the front offices of different teams and the league about this issue for over a year because my organization has been concerned with the lack of direction coming out of the league offices for quite some time. While there has been some movement on the part of MLS over the past year, we’re really concerned that it will take a serious security issue before MLS really decides to speed up their glacial pace.
With the league growing into more cities and smaller stadiums, the percentage of away support is going to grow. By stifling it, we’ll run into much bigger problems later. MLS is adding Philadelphia, a city close to three or four other MLS cities. How is that going to work if away support is limited to 100, even 200 people? It’s silly. Supporters and fans will find their way into stadiums through other means and end up sitting in places that cause problems, problems I’m working to avoid.
That said, I haven’t even be able to get the interest of supporters’ groups around the league to unite for the cause.
The league needs to listen to supporters and institute some kind of policy about away support. Equally, other supporters’ groups also need to pressure their own front offices and MLS for reciprocal away support accommodation. It’s an issue that cries out for collective supporter action.
What should be done?
Leaving it up to individual teams to decide entirely on their allocations makes little sense. Of course Columbus will offer up their whole south end to whoever wants to take it, but those teams closer to filling their stadiums regularly are much more likely to restrict away support as far as they can get away with, as we’re seeing with Toronto.
In other countries, such as England, a certain proportion of the stadium is guaranteed for away support in all competitions: in the Premier League and Football League, it’s 3,000 or 10% of the stadium, whichever is lower. It’s true that there would be little point reserving large numbers of seats for Kansas City fans in Los Angeles, for example — the distances and culture are different from Europe — but a sensible solution to deal with organised groups should be properly explored.
As it stands, if established supporters’ groups with a track record of away support are not given 1% of the stadium even when they’ve requested five times that and taken over twice that the previous season, something is awry.
The broader concern is that this speaks to MLS continual ambiguous relationship to the culture of supporters’ groups. Broadcasters turn the mics and cameras on them, yet their very presence is being restricted where it could do most for the atmosphere at MLS games.
Update: 48 hours on from this post’s publication, there has been massive interest on the general issue of figuring out a way forward on the away support issue, and I’d particularly like to thank those Toronto fans who have expressed their dismay at their front office’s decision. Building on this kind of collaboration in the coming weeks will be critical, and behind the scenes, supporters’ groups are working on figuring out a proposal for MLS. We will have a post with more details on this soon.
The one difficult issue that has caused conflict so far regards the possibility — and I should stress that as far as I know, nothing has been decided — that Chicago might limit Toronto’s allocation as far as Toronto limits Chicago. But I would say again the situation is fluid and let’s work on finding a solution that would mean it wouldn’t even need to be considered and indeed (with a league-wide mandate) would make it impossible in the future. It should certainly be an absolute last resort.
Thanks to everyone who has offered comments and thoughts on how to proceed, please check back in the next day or two for a further and more detailed discussion on the way forward.