Columbus, You Have a Problem
Referring to West Ham as “Brits” potentially kicked off the violence before matchday
I have deliberetly allowed two days to pass since the initial reports about the fracas at Crew Stadium have passed to comment on this site. I wanted to see what action was taken by the club and what the fallout was before rushing to judgement. After two days of evaluating the situation and talking to people across the country, I have come to the conclusion that the situation in Columbus must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
The simple one word association most Americans have with the sport of soccer is “hooligans.” The second word is “foreign.” So many bloggers and fans simply do not understand the negativity towards the sport we love that emanates from media blowing up incidents like the one the other night in Columbus. So many MLS/USL fans list incidents from NFL, NBA and NHL games and claim that makes these problems acceptable, but reality is that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is the media will treat and the public will perceive any incidents at an MLS match differently than anything at a mainstream American sporting event.
College Football has in the past proved to be a violent sport. Deaths have surrounded the Florida-Georgia game, the Texas A&M-Texas game and Michigan-Wisconsin game in recent years. But that sport is such a fabric of American life especially in the rural south and midwest it’s always chalked up to being drunk college fraternity kids who are living the American way. Nothing about College Football threatens the American fabric according to the demagogues who trash anything related to the beautiful game.
Significant elements of the American media wants this sport to fail and go away. Everytime something has happened at an MLS match this year no matter how minor it’s ended up on the “shout shows” like PTI, ATH and Rome is Burning as proof that Soccer is foreign and dangerous. Every time something happens at a College Football game it is simply “those poor kids” and “how terrible.”
Having spent several years working closely with a major international polling firm I can tell you most Americans don’t have the critical thinking skills that they used to on matters like this. It sounds condescending or elitist to make this blanket statement but I have seen empirical evidence that backs up such claims. The reason: Too many Americans depend on TV new, particularly cable news s to shape their perceptions. This trend started in the late 1980s but really intensified in the late 1990s. It’s a bi-partisan thing as the two most prominent prime political shows, the O’Reilly Factor and Countdown, both feature hosts who bash Soccer as foreign and un-American. One host is a right wing conservative and the other a left wing liberal. The liberal actually has a sports background where he used to bash Soccer.
This is what we are facing. I’ve heard time and time again that MLS and USL fans are actually better behaved than NFL, NBA or NHL fans. That may be true but is not the point. We don’t shape the perception, the media which is suspicious of this game does and we cannot give them fodder to bury this sport just as it is surging into the American conscience.
Where does the Columbus Crew fit in this? We’ve had a budding Hooligan problem in this league and in USL for a few years now. When I spoke with Dougie Brimson about the Toronto FC situation two months ago he told me that he had predicted this to the MLS brass a year ago and that they were serious about combating the threat. It seems whatever memo went out from the league office was read in thirteen cities and in some cases over done (like in New Jersey this past weekend) but in Columbus a team that once led the MLS in attendance but now struggles to get respectable crowds has seemingly turned a blind eye to incident after incident.
Here is what has happened around the US & Canada this year:
1) Portland has rowdy fans that sing throughout the matches but hardly ever pick fights with the other teams supporters. They sing, they chant and the Timbers supporters demonstrate to us how passionate football support should be. I do not know of one incident that has made the news recently about the Timbers supporters stepping over the line so to speak.
2) In Houston, after the El Battalion started a fight with Chivas USA supporters, club itself and the other large supporters group the Texian Army took strong action against EB and little trouble has occurred since. The Superliga matches involving Mexican sides at Robertson will basically trouble free.
3) Chivas USA banned several members of a supporters group that picked a fight with the LA Riot squad outside the SuperClassico match in April from several matches and the entire Supporters groups choose to sit out the matches in solidarity with their members.
4) TFC dealt with the problems of violence on the GO trains after matches as well as frequent pitch invaders and no trouble has occurred since. The Metropolitan police in Toronto have increased their presence around the ground on matchdays.
Now let’s look at Columbus and contrast it with the above situations:
1- Columbus did not adequately police the tailgate area before the season opener with Toronto and thus many TFC fans were attacked and with a lack of port o lets for such a large tailgate area, inevitably tensions flared and not only did fans urinate on the ground but they began fighting with one another.
2- At the same match the police presence was so minimal several TFC fans were able to storm the pitch and head towards the goal Columbus was defending.
3- When I discussed the Toronto situation openly and honestly and tried to engage TFC fans on my CSRN show the complaints about me being “too soft on TFC” all seemed to come from Crew fans. Days later several Crew fans were shouting racial obscenities at New England players as caught on You Tube. The Columbus fans also were caught throwing glass bottles and coins on the pitch during the 2nd half of the match.
4- The organization and supporters group in complete contrast to the strong a decisive actions of Chivas USA and Houston in fighting hooliganism tried to cover up the situation and wouldn’t give up the individuals involved. The team would not take action so the league had to after several embarrassing columns were written in newspapers, some of which hardly cover the sport normally. Even more alarming was the attempt by some Columbus supporters to go after sponsors of the MLS Rumors site who had exposed the behavior at Crew Stadium. This is the way off a hooligan, to threaten and bully.
5- In defiance of a league wide ban Columbus fans began sprayed confetti and streamers on opposing players while attempting a corner. Now I cannot recall the specific match but it was done. Why the security did not confiscate the items at the gate is beyond anyone’s comprehension. The league wide ban was more or less enforced throughout the rest of the league. When pressed on the situation at Crew Stadium, Columbus GM, Mark McCullers blamed Toronto FC for the trouble league wide and avoided totally the issue of racist fans.
6- Sunday’s incident: West Ham has a reputation for having rowdy fans, but we’ve hosted English clubs before and never had trouble. The poster promoting the match was an implicit call for some sort of nationalistic pride from the fans, which often times in the past has evolved into violence when West Ham is involved. I’m as nationalistic as it comes when this game is involved whether it be the US National Team, Superliga, or even the Carribean club cup which USL side Puerto Rico participates in. But saying “we take on the Brits, you push us over the top,” is in fact way over the top to steal a line from Crew promotion department. How would Tigres supporters have taken a posted in Dnever prior to the Tecate Cup match two weeks ago that read ” Colorado fans put us over the top against the Mexicans?” The poster and its message strongly indicate to me the Crew management has no interest in stopping the continued incidents at Crew Stadium.
In addition, at some point soon either the local law enforcement needs to be better trained to handle situations like this or the Columbus fans have to be mature enough to walk away. I have to state that I firmly believe that if West Ham had played, let’s say Real Salt Lake instead of Columbus these problems would have been avoided.
Here is my thesis on the situation: Columbus attendance once the highest in MLS has now become among the worst in the league. I believe the organization, desperate to create an atmosphere and attract new fans is purposely turning a blind eye to the things other organizations are stamping out immediately. As I have said to this point we’ve had no repeat incidents in Houston, Toronto or LA because those matters were dealt with by the club before the next home match. Columbus on the other hand has allowed things to fester. They are going to have to take action this time for the good of MLS and Soccer in this country.
It’s really a shame. At one time the Crew were the model for MLS. They built their own ground while the rest of the league was still using NFL/College Football stadiums and had such a good record of finding players and developing talent. But this year’s version of the Crew while talented on the pitch has left a sour taste in many people’s mouths because this stuff just keep happening and happening. The Crew organization also deserves better in terms of results. As I’ve said they’ve been long one of MLS’ model teams but have consistently fallen just short of winning anything significant.
Please, Columbus clean up your own mess and stop blaming others for your problems. You have a problem and it needs to be stamped out not just for the good of your organization, but for the good of the league and the good of the game. In addition, Soccer fans throughout this country need to support whatever moves MLS and Crew make to clean up this mess.