If you think I'm going to insult your intelligence by talking up how great Zlatan made the Galaxy look against Orlando, well, I don't blame you. For those archaeologists who are reading this hundreds of thousands of years after humankind has fallen, I'm referring to the hat-trick win this past weekend, extending the Galaxy's unbeaten streak to nine.
If you were for some weird reason a fan of a different team, you might point out that the Galaxy were at home. The Galaxy had all three designated players on the field. Orlando had played on Thursday and traveled across the country, while the Galaxy played on the road on Thursday and maybe got caught in traffic on the way home. Orlando is averaging a sexy one point a game overall, and have been a beached whale fire for a couple of months now.
So the Galaxy turned a gimme into freaking Thermopylae, and we're jumping around like happy dolphins around suicidal sardines. We look like fans of a twenty-minute-old expansion team, and not the Lakers/Yankees/Cowboys/Coyotes of MLS.
Well, let me tell YOU, fan of Brand X. You are 100% right. No apologies.
MLS is such a fun league. It's going to be tough to give it up.
One of the jarring things I've noticed since focusing back on MLS this year is the constant hostility between front offices and fans. MLS is at war with its own supporters.
The most obvious example is in Columbus, and at this point I assume you, Gentle Reader, agree with me on how important it is to #SaveTheCrew, or have arrived at a different conclusion for your own reasons.
At this particular moment, the situation in Ohio is mired in dueling lawyers, while the situation in Austin is…well, read Kevin Lyttle's American-Statesman article here if you want to be confused. https://www.statesman.com/sports/so...mls-stadium-idea-cota/4R7RusDZnHjiBeEOTuiZpK/
Most, if not all, stadium proposals fail long before a vote is taken, let alone before dirt is shoveled. (Cf., Miami Beckham United.) Precourt Sports Ventures and MLS seem to be addressing this problem by having every stadium proposal put forward all at once, thinking one will get through. If you have better metaphor for this than millions of sperm trying to break through a giant rubber wall to get to the egg, please let me know.
I think I understand the situation in Ohio better, although I think lots of things. Either ORC 9-67 (the "Modell Law" when it's at home) is valid law, or it isn't. I think it has a lot of wonderful advantages. If you think your team has no community responsibility beyond putting the city name on the shirt – great! Build your own darn stadium, ya chump. But if you take one sip of the public teat, then you owe the public something in return.
Wiser legal and economic minds than mine – AS IF! – point out that such things either should be expanded beyond sports entertainment, or probably shouldn't be on the books at all. There would probably be little preventing individual cities and counties from passing similar laws, and the idea of (to pick an example completely at random) Foxborough, Massachusetts claiming (another random example) the New England Revolution for all eternity is pretty scary.
Without the Modell Law, though, the #SaveTheCrew fight would have been a great deal tougher for all the great fans involved (sorry, can't even pretend to be unbiased on this puppy). Your state and community should pass one. Looking at you, Missouri.
The Modell Law, whether you see it as fans' rights godsend or unconstitutional abomination, might even force Major League Soccer into the obvious and sensible solution – an expansion team. Common sense would demand the currently-empty community get the expansion team. Ohio does have what I consider to be a reasonably bitter memory of seeing Art Modell win a Super Bowl with a team where the core came from Cleveland.
But because the current team would usually be the more valuable one, it would be understandable if the current owner would want to take the existing team and saddle the jilted with a startup– certainly if the current owner is a slug like Anthony Precourt.
Fortunately, Major League Soccer has come up with a solution, however unwittingly. If MLS is actually back on its BS about "investor/operators," then the problem doesn't arise. Anthony Precourt can open a branch office in Austin, but the current Columbus location stays open and nobody is forced to move. Since that solution would case mild inconvenience for the rest of the league's investor/operators, and since I expect MLS to go right back to calling them "owners" the microsecond this case is decided, I'm not putting a nickel on common sense here.
There is one significant problem with the Austin expansion team option, though, and that's the ongoing MLS expansion process. Having Austin jump the line would be aggravating for at least six other cities and groups of rich people, not least of which are also in Texas.
I have a solution, and, like most of my solutions, I do not expect it be entertained for a moment. San Antonio, however, is objectively a good market, has been on the Major League Soccer radar for longer than most of us have been alive – oh, only fifteen years? Fifteen years in MLS is like fifteen years on Neptune. I'm not telling the other expansion candidates no, I'm telling them later. I also don't buy the idea that Austin and San Antonio will cannibalize fans from each other, just like no one thinks Cincinnati and Columbus will fight over each others' fans. (And they won't.) (But not because Columbus won't be there.) (Because they will.)
The perfect solution, of course, is Precourt sells the Crew locally and gets the hell out of soccer entirely. I'm willing to settle for short of that, if it will #SaveTheCrew. But there has to be a Columbus Crew in MLS, or I'm no longer supporting MLS.
Yeah, they'll survive without me. Good for them, good for the sport. But an MLS that would move the Columbus Crew is not the league we could and should have.
And I do think the Austin controversy has alienated fans outside Columbus, because after all these years we probably still do have more in common with each other than not. And I really, really do think that the Austin controversy has warped other front offices. It's never good when other fans are the enemy, and if the team you work for is likely to be moved for profits that you, the employee, will never see - well, what's your fan engagement going to be like? (EDITED and expanded; per comments, below, initial version read "I hate MLS fans, they all suck", which, wow, where did that come from, that wasn't the message)
This should be DC United's grandest year since their last trophy. Oh, God, no, not that year. Since 2004. Adumania! Um, okay, grandest year since 1999. What the gods of capitalism have decreed Audi Field is open, and the league's original flagship and jewel has a permanent home.
Except the place is leaky as hell, and the front office and fans hate each other.
Fine, I'm sure they'll fix the place up in the offseason. What the kids nowadays call Toyota Stadium and new home of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, but what I will always think of as Pizza the Hutt Park, is by all accounts a delightful, if inconvenient, place to take in an association match. And it was opened, oh, about four years before it was finished.
Pizza the Hutt. It's a "Spaceballs" reference.
What will take a little more time to heal is the self-inflicted wound DC United gave to itself and its supporter culture. As nutshelled expertly by Ryan Bacic of the Washington Post :
After 22 seasons with an amalgam of independent supporters’ groups, United announced an official partnership with one original supporters’ group, the nonprofit Screaming Eagles, that assigned them “the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture.” The agreement prominently entailed charitable work with DC SCORES, but the Barra and Ultras were outraged at two other aspects: primary responsibility for game-day atmosphere and control over single-game ticket resales.
Per Bacic's colleague Kendra Andrews, the Screaming Eagles get tickets at $20 a pop, which they are in charge of re-selling to other supporters groups.
Now, class, who can tell me the flaw with this plan as described?
That's right. Everything.
“When I got here, we wanted to revise the model,” [DC United President Tom] Hunt said. “We did not want them to be ticket brokers for the club. We wanted them to be the supporters’ group that would come and bang the drum and lead the chants and not necessarily make a profit off the club.”
Well, let me tell YOU, Mr. Hunt – yeah, you're right. Supporters groups should not be ticket brokers. It was a stupid and lazy idea that never should have become part of the club culture or tradition. Sit down with your fans, treat them like adults, and don't ask them to do your jobs for you.
This is where – and we'll be returning to this theme – we need front offices and management to talk to each other, and compare notes. Fans do, after all.
Fine, so Seattle or Portland rolling up to the DC mansion and telling them how to run their shop might have come off wrong. But the older MLS clubs like San Jose, Dallas, Colorado, Kansas City, Chicago, the Red Bulls and the Galaxy managed some painful transitions from NFL stadium to soccer-specific. Sometimes it went smoothly, other times it didn't, but when eleven other teams have done it previously, someone must have some notes.
Yeah, the Red Bulls are rivals. But not for fans in Washington, DC, that's the point. You want a rich and popular rival to make you rich and popular in return.
Okay, so don't take advice from Precourt. Or the Galaxy these days.
And certainly don't take advice from the Chicago Fire on how to manage an unhappy fan base.
I understood the task Nelson Rodriguez faced with Chivas USA, which was basically to drag the Exxon Valdez back to port for repairs. Sure, their tickets sold about as well as bacon cheeseburgers at the Wailing Wall (stop me if I've told you that one), but Chivas USA never finished last after its first year. Despite budgets and leadership intelligence that could both be described as shoestring.
I have no idea what Nelson Rodriguez is playing at with the Chicago Fire.
Front office reactions tend to overshadow the fan shenanigans (or "shefanigans," if you like, which now that I see it actually printed out I'm fairly sure you won't) that brought on the responses. Usually because what the fans did is usually some feat of childishness it wouldn't be worth the trouble to type out.
Unless you set fire to the other team's stadium or something. Good job, Toronto FC Inebriatti, you've given the green light to every security crackdown in the sport for the next five years. But I digress.
Otherwise excellent recaps of the current situation from Dan Santaromita of ProSoccer and José Luis Sánchez Pando from some rag called the Chicago Tribune don't address what Sector Latino or its members did in the first place. But then…neither does Nelson.
From Santaromita's article:
“The group and its leadership to the time I’ve been here has never voluntarily submitted those who were guilty of breaking the fan code of conduct,” Rodriguez said of SL. “In one particular incident, the number of participants in the incident was large. It was more than a few people, many of whom were trying to obscure their faces, many of whom were wearing a sweatshirt identifying them as members of Sector Latino. The leadership was given every opportunity to bring forth those who violated the code of conduct. They did not. That’s what led to the final warning. That’s what led to: if you can’t control your membership, if you can’t modify your behavior, if you can’t identify those few bad apples who are ruining it for all of you, you will leave us with no choice.
“And on the very next opportunity, there’s a violation of the code of conduct, there is no submission of the guilty party and everything was clear. So we made good-faith efforts, but in the end what I’ve said and will continue to say, we cannot allow a group to hide or allow to be hidden within them, those that endanger the safety of others.
“From our perspective, we gave multiple opportunities for the leadership to step up and they didn’t. The last thing I’ll say is we have reason to believe that members of the leadership engaged in violating the fan code of conduct.”
Since it's Rodriguez himself who chose to focus on both the collective punishment and the vagueness of "code of conduct," then it would be fair to judge Rodriguez by that alone.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Rodriguez is being an idiot. As general manager of a private business, it's his right to be, but casting a net to include season ticket-holders who had nothing to do with the violation of the code of conduct would be poor business practices for a band of Tusken Raiders.
What Sector Latino did, as it happens, was set off a smoke bomb in the supporters section.
If Rodriguez wanted to address that, in my opinion he had plenty of room. Smoke bombs are stupid. What do you think the other team is going to do, stop playing and gawk at the smoke long enough for the Fire to score a cheap goal?
And this is the United States of America. Not because it's against things Latino, but because we are a lawsuitocracy. Here's a three-act play of every possible discussion of supporter sections setting off combustibles:
FRONT OFFICE REACHING OUT TO SUPPORTERS: We love flares and smoke bombs!
LAWYERS AND INSURANCE COMPANIES: No, you don't.
FRONT OFFICE: No, we don't!
But the entire section obviously didn't bring in and set off their own individual smoke bombs. So the collective punishment relies on the idea that the fans should have turned over the guy responsible.
Ethics of snitching aside, that's just a confession of incompetence. If you don't have a camera pointed at your most excitable fans, and if your professional security are baffled by the Moscow Rules tactic of "covering one's face," that's a problem for the general manager. Outsourcing fan security to fans is, if nothing else, cheap and lazy.
Those are the most obvious examples of misguided front office policies towards fans, but I'm sure there are plenty of others. In ye olden times, a lot of this was because inexperienced front offices were facing challenges no other pro sports team faced regarding fan culture. (Several universities could have given some helpful advice, looking back, but the kinship between student sections at college football games and soccer supporter sections remains unacknowledged as of this writing.)
It's not acceptable any more, however. We are not Among the Thugs here. Treat your customers like you want them to come back.