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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

Has the time come for soccer fans in the USA to become more demanding?

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

D.C. United supporter groups announced that they will refrain from banging drums or bringing flags and banners as a sign of protest against the club’s preseason tour of Saudi Arabia. So, things will be a little quieter inside Audi Field for the first four games. I suspect that the club will ride out this mini storm, and normal service will resume, with money from those fans safely secure in the bank. Seems a little empty.

But what other options do fans have, and how can they protest with purpose? And are we seeing more dissenting voices among supporter groups (LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers).

Now, not for one minute am I suggesting they take the same course as the fans we saw in Germany over the weekend. Hansa Rostock fans drove remote-controlled cars, filled with smoke bombs, onto the pitch. In the match involving SC Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, model planes were flown across the field.

During Bayern’s loss at Bochum, tennis balls were hurled onto the field, a tactic used by the fans of English clubs Southend and Reading fans (Reading fans also stormed onto the field during a recent match to further elevate their protest against the owner).

While not condoning any of these tactics, strong messages were sent. The fans are indicating that they are unhappy with developments, want to be heard and need to be listened to. They are not merely customers as with most other businesses.

When covering Brighton & Hove Albion in the late 90s, I saw first-hand how fans were coordinated in their collaboration, relentlessly protesting the sale of their beloved Goldstone Ground without a proposed new home to go to. The fans staged walk-ins, walk-outs, booed every time executives took their seats in the directors’ box, marched on the owner’s home after a Saturday match in Wigan to deliver a letter of protest, had a concerted media campaign, and were clear on their demands.

Without the Albion fans doing what they did during that time, I’m convinced there would no longer be a club. This was their club. The owner, executives, staff and players were merely passing through. Fans fought for what they wanted, instead of sitting back and accepting what the current owner was prepared to give them. Closer to home, and the actions of fans in Columbus, the Save the Crew crowd, a more recent example of how fans – when organized – can land a blow for the little people.

Soccer fans in the United States remain among the most polite and respectful fans of the sport that I have ever met, and I’ve covered this sport in dozens of countries around the world and at almost every level in England.

That is not to say that they are any less passionate about their club than fans of Brighton or Reading or Freiburg. They just express any disdain in less outlandish ways.

Attending a match in England is an education. And by that I mean you expand your vocabulary! Whether opposing players or managers, match officials, an over officious steward, or even one of the home team’s players having an off day – no one is sheltered from the insults and abuse. Fans regularly overstep the mark, but it brings with it a level of accountability. There is no hiding place and those in charge know their every move will be monitored, scrutinized, and judged. The fans have a voice, and they will take all steps necessary to make sure the gatekeepers of their prized club understand what is expected.

Are we at a tipping point in fan behavior on this side of the Atlantic? Up to now, they have been upset at owners and executives, and yet still attended games. They have been frustrated at the direction of the club, and yet still forked out for season tickets. They have vocalized their anger on social media, and yet cheered the team on game day.

Why not stay away? Why purchase match tickets? Why cheer the players rather than jeer the owners and executives? The reason up to now? Their gripe is not with the team. Their love for the club and respect for the players prevents them from going full Hansa Rostock!

Now, that approach is to be applauded, it’s admiral, as is the fact that they have (so far) opted not to fill their pockets with tennis balls to disrupt games, but the billionaire businessmen have your money.

In the case of the Colorado Rapids, a billionaire who – during my 10 seasons as the voice of the franchise – was only seen at DICK’S Sporting Goods Park once, when his other soccer club, Arsenal, visited in 2019.

Fans of the sport need to get creative; they need to be organized and they need to be prepared to be unpopular, among club executives and even fellow fans, and to make sacrifices.

Those sacrifices may include not renewing a season ticket, refusing to buy concessions, or foregoing the latest expensive apparel from the team store.

Of course, there is a nagging fear in the minds of some fans - those fans who for years have been told how grateful they should be to have a pro soccer franchise in their town - and that is a disgruntled owner, unhappy with being called out by fans, packing up and relocating. I get that; a kind of ‘be careful what you wish for’.

And I am aware that pressure can sometimes be applied by the clubs themselves, which has supporter groups scurrying back in line. Same goes for any independent media that attempts to genuinely hold clubs to account.

I get it. It’s a dicey line to tread. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that fans do have power. That power ultimately lies in their pockets. They can choose to moan and whine about the direction of their club while still adding to the burgeoning bank account of the billionaire, or they can support their team from afar. Over 90 minutes, there’s ample time to cheer their team on from the terraces, and also vocally protest against the bosses.

Fans have been too passive and too polite for too long. And there’s a part of me that loves them for that. But, as we’ve seen in recent days with the debacle surrounding the U.S. Open Cup, the sport is at a crossroads. Soccer fans in the United States need to figure out what they’re prepared to accept, because issues faced by some should be a concern for all.

As C.S Lewis once said, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Good luck.

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