Hooliganism was a plague upon English soccer for the better part of three decades, and while forms of the disease persist around the rest of continental Europe and South America, the thought of such a thing happening on United States soil seems preposterous.
However, after another round of incidents between fans of NYCFC and New York Red Bulls this past weekend, one has to ask the question if MLS is in danger of falling down that dark rabbit hole?
On the one hand, the league loves to tout its growing supporters culture and the atmosphere at most MLS stadiums is on par with what one would see across much of the rest of the soccer world.
On the other hand, there is a whole generation of fans who have grown up with both MLS in their back yards and European soccer on their TV’s every weekend morning.
They’ve also digested documentaries about hooligans from around the world and devoured movies like The Real Football Factory and Green Street Hooligans.
Point being, the group of fans growing up and becoming weekly MLS spectators and supporters have a broader soccer education than those in the early days of the league. They also happen to have lived in an era that has largely glorified the people who committed some of the worst gang violence Europe has ever seen.
Sometimes life imitates art, and it was exactly what we witnessed take place this past Saturday in the Bronx. Fans throwing insults at opposing fans is one thing — fans throwing bottles, punches and rocks at one another?
Those should be scenes relegated to documentaries of a bygone era in English football, not of a burgeoning rivalry in modern-day MLS. Yet, that is exactly what happened this past weekend.
Red Bulls fans arrived and then it got nasty. Feels like England in the 80s… pic.twitter.com/VJIKyDYlC3
— Garry Hayes (@garryhayes) May 21, 2016
Here's another video from the earlier clashes with NYCFC and NYRB fans outside Yankee Stadium… pic.twitter.com/NTfWPuyiWt
— Garry Hayes (@garryhayes) May 21, 2016
While it is tempting to say the clashes and nastiness between NYCFC and Red Bulls fans is a one-off situation that needs attention from the league, it is also hard to not recognize that the league is also beginning to walk a fine line.
I’ve personally experienced being surrounded coming out of a bathroom as an opposing fan by a small gang of home team supporters in the past. I’ve also been witness to attempted invasions by opposing fans in to home fans’ supporters sections and small fights breaking out here and there.
The latter is something any fan at any sporting event could see. It happens at NFL, NHL, NBA and other major professional sporting events. Putting heated emotions, copious amounts of alcohol and testosterone together can be a quick spark for anyone to come to blows at a sporting event.
Perhaps that was the deadly combination this past Saturday afternoon, but it should serve as a major warning to the powers-that-be at MLS headquarters of just how fine a line they really are walking with the promotion of supporters culture and the lackadaisical approach it has to fan security as well.
No doubt MLS is a league that has matured financially and on the pitch as it celebrates its 20th year, and along with that supporters cultures have also matured.
MLS would be wise to make a very large statement with the behavior of fans at the New York derby match. Bans, fines for the clubs and even playing matches behind closed doors should be on the table.
It also clearly needs to shore up its policing presence during these kind of matches. A handful of police officers would’ve never been able to handle that crowd this past weekend had cooler heads not eventually prevailed.
If MLS wants to show that its supporters culture can have all the passion of the Ultras in Italy or the Torcida’s around the world and also show things don’t have to get violent just because they are passionate…well, it needs to step up to the plate quickly and make a definitive statement against violence from supporters.
Soccer’s growth in the United States over the length of MLS’s life-to-date is simply incredible. However, the casual fan and anti-soccer crowd will be more than happy to jump on the bad publicity incidents like this can cause.
Headlines like “Wannabe MLS Hooligans Are Adopting the Worst of Soccer Culture” immediately popped up — and that is the last thing MLS wants.
Nipping this behavior in the bud now isn’t just wise for fan safety, it is very wise if the league wants to take its game to the next level on the American sports landscape.
Luckily for MLS, for every ridiculous moment like this past Saturday it can also point to the great and non-violent nature of a truly heated and real rivalry like that between the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps.
On the whole, MLS’ supporters are different than other groups across the world in their passion not usually boiling over to violence — and that’s a good thing. It’s up to MLS and its broadening ownership group to make sure there is less of this past Saturday and much more of the behavior ahead of any Cascadia Cup rivalry matchup.
Until MLS shows it is serious about curbing violent behavior and actions of supporters groups, there is a real possibility of the tight rope it is walking completely collapsing.