MLS: The wild west of visiting supporter sections

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 31: Fans celebrate during the soccer match between DC United and the Orlando City Lions on March 31, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 31: Fans celebrate during the soccer match between DC United and the Orlando City Lions on March 31, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

There is no debating that a healthy showing of visiting supporters does wonders for the energy levels of an MLS match. But does more need to be done to keep fans safe?

All eyes were on the pitch. Until they weren’t. A lone wolf, undoubtedly fuelled by liquid courage, had decided to make his way up to the last few rows of the stadium and confront members of a travelling support group. It didn’t go well.

He was met at the end of a row by a wall of road jerseys. A push here, a shove there, and the fight was on. The road supporters, who had the high ground and a massive advantage in numbers, quickly sent the home fan tumbling down two rows of seats. Shirts off and eyes blazing, a few more haymakers were thrown before the aggressor retreated to the concourse. To make matters worse, this all unfolded in front of a youth soccer team just trying to enjoy a night out.

All of this transpired at a recent Major League Soccer match I attended. I’m not divulging which two clubs were playing because neither fanbase deserves to be represented by the actions of a small minority. Some of the road supporters even went down to some of the families in the section and apologized. But it got me thinking, is enough being done to keep both road and home fans safe at MLS matches?

In this particular occasion of fan violence, definitely not. Not only did the fan who started the fight walk away without reprimand, but security didn’t even arrive on the scene until at least ten minutes had passed. Even then, they jotted a few things down in a notebook and left, with the main road supporters, who had quite literally just battered a guy, trying not to look suspicious.

In soccer leagues around the world, security between groups of fans is taken much, and I mean much, more seriously. Armed police officers escorting visiting supporters to prison yard-like cages is the norm everywhere from Argentina to Serbia. Even in most Premier League grounds, the row between visiting supporters and home supporters is usually lined with stewards to prevent any dustups.

So, are tensions running so high on your average Saturday night in MLS that we need barbed-wire fences to contain supporters? No, but safety concerns cannot be ignored. The simple answer would be to form a perimeter around the travelling supporters, but this can sometimes cause an adverse effect. Depending on which way the match is going, the winning set of supporters can feel like they can say or do whatever they please, while the other side has to either take it, or fight back.

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Not to get too deep here, but it’s kind of like the lines that social media draws in the sand in our society. Many people have zero filter online and feel that they can make all sorts of disparaging remarks and cross lines. However, if they were mano e mano, they would never even consider making those remarks. Bringing it back to soccer, if fans are protected by a wall of security, they might feel as if they are impervious to any punishment and can cross the line. Whereas, if you remove that wall, those same fans might never even think of inciting anything. The stadium where I witnessed the fight used to surround road supporters with security guards. They expelled use of that practice years ago.

So, what is the solution? Like most things in life, it seems like a balance needs to be struck. Surrounding the visitors with security sends the wrong message, but leaving them to take measures into their own hands, if a situation arises, isn’t right either. Perhaps a few stewards in the stands, a few positioned in the concourse close-by, ready to move in if anything happens, and maybe for derbies, some plainclothes officers.

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Regardless of what the future holds for fan security, what transpired at the match I recently attended was unacceptable by any measure. The league is growing, derbies are getting more intense and the fans are as passionate as ever. For the kids in the audience, and everyone else for that matter, this needs to be addressed.