ACB Sanctions Show Strain Between MLS, Supporters

League’s 8-match ban on Galaxy SG seen by some as unnecessary, heavy-handed
by Ray Marcham   |   Thursday, March 12, 2015

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

A message will be sent to Major League Soccer on Sunday, one that league officials will likely ignore. But that message will be coming from those that MLS continuously seeks to promote and, in a sense, to exploit.

It will be coming from club supporters.

During the nationally-televised match between the Portland Timbers and Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, the Timbers Army will be tossing into the air, at some point, white streamers. Many white streamers. And as much as it will be a sign of celebration, it will also be a sign of protest and a show of support for the Angel City Brigade, the Galaxy’s main supporters group.

The ACB were handed the harshest punishment ever given to a supporters’ group from MLS and the Galaxy in late January, being banned from having tifos, banners and any noise-making items for the first eight matches of the 2015 season. Oh, and no streamers for the entire season.

The crime? Streamers on the pitch during the MLS Cup Final. That’s it.

That is what triggered the suspension, though a statement from ACB stated that the Galaxy also were upset about smoke-making items that the group had used in the past. That statement also said that the ACB thought those issues had already been dealt with, on both sides. But ACB points to Ray Whitworth, MLS Vice President for Operations and Security and a former security chief with the Football Association in England, as being behind the major sanctions against the group. They say Whitworth has branded the group as “hooligans” and tried to ban scarves, as they could be “weapons”. That’s quite a stretch by Whitworth, if that was the case.

It’s a big enough issue that the Independent Supporters Council, a group of supporters groups from across the continent, published an open letter demanding that MLS and the Galaxy end the sanctions against ACB immediately.

The longest ban previous to the ACB punishment was four matches, given to Houston supporters groups in 2012 for throwing items at David Beckham and setting off smoke-making items. San Jose’s 1906 Ultras also got a four-match ban after two people were charged with assaulting a Portland fan before a match at Providence Park (then JELD-WEN Field) in 2013, though the Earthquakes had originally given the group an indefinite ban on tifo and travel. Last year, Orlando City suspended both of their supporters groups, The Ruckus and the Iron Lion Firm, after incidents during a match against the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies led to four arrests.

That MLS and the Galaxy decided that ACB should be banned from supporting their club, as a group for eight matches, is a dangerous slope for them to go down. In dealing with supporters groups, MLS has to be very careful. They want to be seen as taking care of the troublemakers, but they can’t be seen as being heavy-handed, treating supporters as “hooligans” and trying to turn stadiums into the bad-old-days of MLS 1.0. One step over the line by the league, and it could take a long time to recover.

The clubs also have to be careful, as well. It wasn’t that long ago that the Colorado Rapids admitted to keeping files on its fans, and that came out when they tried banning one fan for life from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for swearing. It probably wouldn’t be a surprise if that is still done, by the Rapids or by any other club. But bans have to be a last resort, and not be seen as a club trying to control its fans or trying to turn them into a team-sponsored booster club.

With most MLS clubs, there are often more than one supporters group that have grown with their teams. This adds to the need for the teams to have solid relations with all of these groups, and to know the differences between them. Often, it’s not easy, but there can be great differences, as well. But all groups add to the atmosphere that many MLS stadiums now have, and it’s a long, long way from MLS 1.0.

That’s how it should be. Comparing a match atmosphere in Sporting Park to what Kansas City used to have in Arrowhead Stadium is maybe the biggest example of how MLS 2.0 is much better than MLS 1.0, when large football stadiums and marketing towards “soccer moms” and their families almost killed the league before it could get solid footing. The rise of these groups, allowing the hardcore and passionate soccer fan a place to be themselves and support their club without having to restrain themselves. In short, they can be a fan on their terms, and be with those who think the same way.

It’s those fans that make groups like the Cauldron in Kansas City, Portland’s Timbers Army, Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC in Seattle, Red Patch Boys in Toronto, Sons of Ben in Philadelphia and so many more. They create the atmosphere that MLS now promotes, the atmosphere that’s catching the attention of fans around the world. There is no MLS 2.0 without these groups, and that is a fact the league can’t ignore.

But can MLS 2.0, still being led by those who led it through most of MLS 1.0, ever make peace with its fans? The situation with ACB shows that there is still much work to be done, on both ends. Whether there can ever be trust between MLS executives (including MLS Commissioner Don Garber, MLS President Mark Abbott and Whitworth) and those groups who are now the lifeblood of the league is an issue that will likely never go away.

At the center of this situation is Whitworth, whose name doesn’t come up much in casual MLS conversations. If you look at the list of MLS executives on the league website, he’s not even listed. But he may end up becoming the most powerful person in the league, as he could drive bans against supporters, groups and others who might run afoul with league policies. He came to MLS from England, where he was the FA’s head of security for 12 years. He started at the beginning of 2014, and this ban against ACB, if he is behind it, shows that he already wields a lot of power in the league. If he forced the Galaxy to get behind this, that’s an even bigger issue. But we may never know that.

Other supporter groups are watching this situation, and watching what Whitworth does next. If he grows his power base and becomes the man behind the curtain, telling Garber what groups to punish and for how long, it could send a chill among the most loyal fans of MLS clubs. It’s a tricky situation for all involved, especially since Whitworth seems to rarely come out and make any statements. If the “rules of conduct”, as dictated by Whitworth, end up being as transparent as the league’s allocation rules (which rarely are, and always seem to change without notice), that could be trouble.

So, on Sunday night in Portland, on national television, there will be white steamers thrown in the air by the Timbers Army at some point. Those streamers will be for celebration, but also a show of support for the Angel City Brigade. It will also be a show of protest against Ray Whitworth, against Don Garber and against an MLS that wants to use the atmosphere that supporter groups create to promote the league, but on their terms.

The protest will likely fall on deaf ears at MLS headquarters. But, as a show of solidarity among supporters increasingly in the crossfire, the symbolism is very important.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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