MLS Justice: Punishing Many For Overzealous Few

Passion is Great, yet too much passion may not be Good, but punishing all for a few is always Bad
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, March 02, 2012

Houston Dynamo fans

To prove a point and to build unity in a small group, a military drill instructor may occasionally use the tactic of punishing the many for the actions of a few. They do this to ensure the entire group pulls up the weakest link, unifies and strengthens as a whole. The group doesn’t want to run 5 miles on a beach at 6am, or do hours of tedious labor as punishment. So they start to police themselves, getting the collective in line.

The usual result: no more weak link.

The same mentality is used in correctional institutions, fraternal order pledging, organized crime, gangs, dictatorships and other (mostly unsavory or violent) bodies of mostly males with lots of testosterone to burn.

The philosophy: punish the many for the few, because you cannot possibly police them all. It’s a scare tactic and the reason it’s still employed – it often gets the desired result.

On February 27th MLS announced publicly, and quite parochially, that a few of the hardcore Houston Dynamo supporters went too far on 3 occasions while supporting their club on the road in 2011. The breaches of MLS’ Fan Code of Conduct included bringing in smoke bombs and lighting them and throwing smoke bombs and other items onto the field during MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center.

The resulting punishment includes the banning of supporter atmosphere-inducing items like drums, confetti, flags and tifo banners to away matches for a time period determined by MLS. For supporters - it’s equivalent to bringing your child to the playground, but not letting him get out of the stroller to play. “What a blast, thanks Dad!” A drummer without a drum, how sad an image MLS HQ gets to enforce on the collective. My inner-supporter leaning intuition says they’ll pound on seats anyway, sing louder and chant with the best of Englishmen.

The letter was sent to the “four corners of the empire” as the English did with William Wallace’s bodyparts in Braveheart – to set an example. As Robert the Bruce noted, it did not have the intended desired effect. Nor should this example of un-messable Texians.

Now, let me premise that with the obvious. I do NOT support throwing of smoke bombs, or objects on the field of play. Never, ever … well wait a minute. When UC Santa Barbara college students semi-officially throw tortillas on the field during their games, that’s just downright cool and that is on my soccer bucket list. So I, mostly, do not support throwing objects on the field of play. It’s dangerous and silly. I do worry that an NCAA linesman will be impaled by an unsightly gordita tossed by a caustic Gaucho fan one day and I would be forced to even retract that small area of on-field tossing madness.

In all seriousness, it was over the top for a few Houston fans to throw those objects onto the field. Be it lighters, swag, smoke bombs or cartoon anvils. Outside of paper airplanes and confetti, most anything that could hurt someone, is not wise to throw on the field with intent to harm or not. We all can pretty much agree with that. Even the ones that do it, often times drunk, would generally agree when sober later.

Two of the three infractions though including bringing in and lighting, smoke bombs. Honestly, smoke bombs?!? That was one of the coolest bits to experience in-stadium at MLS Cup 2011. It’s that kind of part of supporter culture and tifo display, passion and soccer exuberance that sets our sport apart from sleep-inducing baseball, sterile NFL or corporate-swooning NBA fan “participation”.

In soccer, supporters are rightfully given the iconic 12th roster position on the team, and many times in our low-scoring nuanced sport, it’s that same 12th man who provides the most entertainment at a match, especially live. For every Barcelona (well there really only is one) there are hundreds of dour playing teams and games, but when you feel and see the passion of the fans pre-game, during and post-game, that all goes away.

Soccer fans love affair with their sport is special, and should not be admonished, even when it goes a little too far, especially if you are the one fanning the flames for increased exposure, popularity and ultimately - profit.

Pre-Northwest MLS expansion, MLS best new-wave of club fandom was led by Toronto FC. They played quite poorly and only now seem to be turning the page on that chapter of their newfound MLS existence. But even back then, the passion of their fans helped ignite MLS 2.0 and bring about the new fan culture that some MLS clubs are embracing and benefiting from. And it should be noted that Toronto fans have often been noticed causing chaos in their own stadium and abroad (Columbus) by throwing drinks, streamers and such at opposing players and on-field generally. Shoot, just last season two KC fans threw bobbleheads at their own Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Thankfully, Sporting KC used technology, logic and fairness when dealing with the offenders. Instead of removing the entire section of fans from the stadium as a broad-sweeping punishment and to teach a lesson to all, SKC did the right thing and removed the 20 year old culprits and let the law deal with them accordingly. Well-handled by Sporting, ultimately MLS should have done similarly with Houston.

Also what Houston fans are accused of doing at MLS Cup and two other matches, while not correct, obviously is not at the same level of hooliganism that is occasionally witnessed around world soccer. Not even close. And it is not out of control or slipping down the slope towards the path of violence which rarely is seen abroad, but is often sensationally highlighted in North American media.

It is certainly not this similar to this scene before a Russian game where rival Moscow and St Petersburg fans reenact a revolution skirmish or two: Part 1 & Part 2.

Thankfully there was no spinoff series, but likely it still carries on twice annually in both cities.

Disgusting scenes but this is not what is going on in MLS terraces (bleachers in American), nor does it require draconian methods in halting in-stadium passion from boiling over into violence towards in-stadium staff, security, opposing fans or players.

For the most part North American supporters groups are passionate, vocal, developing simple chants, and beginning to make more elaborate tifo displays and are in some cases outdoing their more engrained counterparts overseas. Not in the violence or disturbance department however. Not even close. So they shouldn’t all be treated as hooligans or bad elements just because they are trying to emulate their mythologized foreign versions in appearance. It’s not an accurate comparison or stereotype to be given to current MLS supporters groups.

This group … will not lead to this group, and this scene won't lead … to this scene … anytime soon. Thankfully.

On Tour Columbus and English fans

Philadelphia Union fans and hooligan melee






Shoot even the USA Men’s National Team fans have made an evolutionary step up from the seemingly red-clad collegiate type fan of Sam’s Army to the rebellious yet patriotic bandana toting supporter of the American Outlaws.

In the USA it’s cool to imitate European or Latin American hooligans and to try and glorify most of what they do. In this reverence and simulation however, the cultures of violence and combat is almost uniformly abhorred by these groups, especially the leadership, and written into their own statutes.

There are some North American supporters that condone the use of some profanity. The YSA “You Suck A**hole” chant for instance is still popularly directed at opposing goalkeepers and cursing can be heard in supporters areas throughout matches. But to be fair as a native New Yorker, most of what they are dishing out verbally pales in comparison to a typical Yankees game in the Bronx. If you don’t bring your kid to that area, by in-large it’s fine. They probably see and hear worse at school and on TV before you get home from work anyways.

So really we’re not talking about fan-on-fan violence or the use of too much vulgarity, most of that is pretty tame, especially compared with overseas soccer leagues. So this issue than mainly comes down to the throwing of objects on to the field.

If a few fans are doing that, do your job as event hosts and facility security personnel and find out via in-stadium security (like SKC did), through supporters groups intel, the Sporting FBI (watch-out FIFA) or otherwise who the culprits were, and ban them for a season or more from attending games. Don’t ban the entire group from displaying their passion for the stern “"in effect until otherwise notified by MLS," length of time. That’s exactly what MLS does not need.

Quite ironically (read hypocritically) MLS uses these same supporters and loyal supporter groups in their nationally televised league promotions, via clubs trying to entice local fans into buying tickets, as a tool to grow the foreign fanbase and to attract big foreign players who they want to show that they are becoming a mature soccer nation.

Of course they don’t want to show the times when fans throw objects on the field, but that is passion just bubbling over too far. It is not easy to tell your fans, we love your passion, go nuts, go crazy, get loud, smile for the camera, sing louder, here’s a mic … just hey not too much please.

Again, just deal with those offenders who go too far and break the rules individually, not as a collective. Ad certainly don’t shoot an entire club or the league in the foot with a punishment with a resulting loss of color, sound, pageantry and passion. Which ultimately, is what makes soccer, and the current entertainment value of a still low-skilled MLS, more palatable to the foreign-loving aficionado or newbie casual fan.

What’s more, what if Houston supporters react by just not going on the road to support their club during their period of “MLS Supporter Timeout”? The real loser is MLS and the entire fanbase of Houston, most of whom would not be considered hardcore supporter but casual orange-clad fan, with zero intent on possessing a smoke bomb, throwing it or anything similar.

So because the league cannot find the guilty party (again like SKC did quite easily, that night), the masses of innocent fans who love their club, lose out. What a truly poor way to deal with the situation. And sadly, it’s obvious by the tone and manner in which it was released by the league, that it was meant to be a warning for all supporters clubs league-wide. The same supporters who are the very heart and true soul of all soccer clubs.

Sporting Times’ writer James Starritt praised the passion of visiting away Dynamo fans at the end of last season when they knocked his Sporting KC out of the playoffs, and sided with them even though they were adversaries, stating noteablly:

“They have had their wings clipped for behavior we have seen in other places around MLS. MLS have sighted a series of incidents, all of which we can honestly say have occurred at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, and frankly probably all within the first game of last season.”

With nearly two decades, multiple generations of fans, stadiums of their own, access to foreign matches, exotically infectious supporter culture on TV all day long and just overall more time and passion for their own clubs - the MLS supporters groups are quickly growing more sophisticated. That does require a code of conduct to keep it from getting out of hand and keeping some in check, but it has little chance of becoming a pre-game Millwall-Chelsea slugfest or a disgusting “riot” like in Egypt, anytime soon.

The actions of a few Houston Dynamo fans weren’t great but they weren’t that bad either. But it points to a worrying lack of respect for the best fans by the league and should be addressed by the collective supporters before leverage shifts too far from entertainer and consumer to patron and beneficiary, which it sadly has done in some places overseas with fans’ wishes and best interests treated as tokens of goodwill. Changing of untimely fixtures at a drop of a dime, inflated season tickets, little say in club affairs, 10 foot high fences to protect the club from itself and disconnected owners who sit in cigar-smoke-filled luxury boxes as they giggle with their newly acquired model WAG about their crazy supporters antics.

The league leaders do not need to be heavy handed or worded towards their most valuable asset MLS highlights, promotes and covets – the hardcore supporter and their groups. Punish the few guilty, not the masses of innocents who make MLS better and who officials readily tout in their marketing campaigns.

In this new stage of MLS and with its newfound growth, mostly due to strong fan culture in new markets and clubs, it would be wise to side with the fans and their organic passion and not with a set of artificial passion-defusing rules created by people sitting in offices for those standing on terraces.

These are the same groups that came to support you at the City Halls, wrote to your politicians for stadium support, the ones who you used to hold up scarves and wave flags for your Season Ticket promo ads, they are the ones you tout on your national broadcasts to garner more widespread support, the same ones who support you when you play terribly and the bandwagon gets desolate, they’re the ones you brag about to new billionaires looking into joining the ownership club and they are the ones who you hope stand and sing for hours every week thru good weather and bad.

MLS, this is consumer #1, not consumer #20,001. They are your eternal loud and proud salesmen and they grow your business every time they bang that drum, hoist those banners on television and chant into your citizens’ eardrums. It is your business, of course, but it is their city, their community and their club. If you leave, they’ll still be there. If you move the club, rest assured they will start anew. And though your name is on the business card, ultimately, you are a custodian of a community asset, temporarily.

So, respect them by treating them fairly, as adults, individually and respectfully. They are not all mayhem bringers, but rather, they are your flag-bearers and most honorable loyalists. To speak in your language of commerce might be better - they are your best asset. Don’t ever forget that.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.