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Making The Case: A Troubling Time for Supporters in New England

At this point in American soccer I thought we were really past this. I thought that, for the most part, Major League Soccer teams had decided that supporters were a good thing. Yeah, sure they occasionally dropped the f-bomb and, oh yeah, we'd really appreciate it if you left the smoke bombs at home, but you all keep on doing what looks good on TV and to the rest of the fans at the stadium... cheering your brains out for the home team.

Wrong.

Last weekend the New England Revolution took to the field at the massive Gillette Stadium against the Chicago Fire and what occurred around the 60th minute of this match can only be described as madness. The solid New England site, "The Drug is Football" has documented the incidents well and we''ll be borrowing their descriptions liberally.

"What can only be described as a planned operation took place against the Fort (the supporters section for Revs fans) and Revolution Supporters Groups. Gillette Stadium security, TeamOps, went about ejecting and in multiple cases having the Foxborough Police Department make arrests. The start of all of this is from the "You suck asshole" chant that is routinely done around the league after goalkeepers take a goalkick."

From various accounts of the incident, which you can also read in more detail at two other Revolution sites, "The Indirect Kick" and "The Bent Musket", supporters of the Revs were forcibly removed from the stadium after security responded to multiple complaints over language (during this match and all season) coming from "the Fort". Of others who were not removed many left the game in silent protest of the security details' tactics.

Whether or not this was a premeditated operation is unknown., but members of "the Fort" noticed an increased security presence during the match, more security supervisors from TeamOps (which is owned by Revs team owner Robert Kraft), and the lack of the Revs Girls who normally roam freely around the section cheering with the supporters. An omonous foreshadowing of things to come.

"The Drug is Football" reported that at least 10-12 people were arrested and more than 20 people have been banned from Gillette from the match. Their account again:

"One person who was arrested has gotten in touch with us, due to pending legal action we will not publish his name however he told us he was arrested for disorderly conduct. We witnessed him being arrested and he was peacefully leaving The Fort along with many others. He also has told us that when he was arrested by the Foxborough Police Department he was not read his Miranda Rights, when he asked he was told by the arresting officer "Fuck your rights", in addition when they ID'd him he gave his military ID to which the officer said to him "You must be in the Navy because you're acting like a pussy". 
Obviously we cannot blame this directly on the team, but these actions by the Foxborough PD are appalling and the disrespect they gave to an active member of the military is shameful considering we are a nation still fighting multiple wars. These officers may be or have been members of rival branches of the military but there is no excuse for bringing that into their job. One cannot help but think this all could have been easily avoided."

The Revolution's Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello confirms what sparked the incident (full statement here):

"Unfortunately there was an issue last night in the fort which was a culmination of multiple weeks of complaints from many of our STH who do not sit in the fort. This was related to one particular chant which our supporters' liaison has spoken to the supporter group leaders about on multiple occasions this season."

While Bilello calls the situation from last Saturday an "issue" for the members of the supporters groups (the Rebellion and the Midnight Riders... both previously profiled in our "Better Know a Supporters Group" series) and other unaffiliated fans in "the Fort" this was more than just an issue. His PR backing of the security's actions will only make the current situation worse.

Why TeamOps decided Saturday's game was the day they were going to come down on "YSA" or any other poor language we may never know. Given the treatment some supporters experienced the response by Bilello appears short-sighted and tone deaf. Blaming supporters without giving a hint of remorse to how they were treated or maybe acknowledge that TeamOps may have been over-zealous will haunt him and the team for a long time.

The New England Revolution are one of the founding clubs of MLS (and the only team still with its original crest) and the former home of some great American soccer players including Steve Ralson, Clint Dempsey, and Taylor Twellman. The team missed out on several MLS Cup titles in the league's early years and, since success in the in the 2007 U.S. Open Cup, the team has struggled missing the playoffs in 2010.

Gillette Stadium, home to the NFL's Patriots and located 30 minutes south of Boston in Foxborough, is the home of the Revolution, but even decent crowd sizes, something that has been hard to come by lately, are swallowed up by the nearly 70,000 seat behemoth. The team's owner, Robert Kraft, one of the saviors of MLS in its darkest years has been accused of indifference to the team and whether or not that's completely accurate it's easy to see why that charge has been leveled against him.
 

"The Fort" during last Wednesday's poorly attended TFC match
and what it might look like each game going forward.
Photo Credit: The Drug is Football

What occurred on Saturday night at Gillette was the culmination of years of difficult relations between the Revolution Front Office, the ever rotating set of TeamOps security personnel, and the supporters of the Revs.

Rebellion Vice President Brendan Schimmel said, "The failure is everywhere. The FO has to respond to complaints from STHs, in doing so they risk alienating a majority. Security, for their tactics employed being perceived as disorganized, inconsistent and indiscriminate. Everyone and their mother knows the behavior at a Pats game is ten times worse, except they don't have one section they can scapegoat.

"Although, I can assure you the FO did intervene before security took action Saturday night allowing us the chance to curtail the profanity. The expectation that anyone had the power to prevent a crowd like this from swearing is unrealistic and the result was unfortunate. The response to these requests is what forced Security's hand. This is a bad situation that put good people in difficult positions."

"I love the Revs. But the feeling of being treated like criminals in your own house is frustrating," he continued.

"Celebrating supporters for their joint road trip to Red Bull Arena one week and then having ejections occur for the same behavior a week later at home is inconsistent and it brings multiple underlying issues that linger with many supporters to the surface."

Schmimmel even acknowledged that Revolution supporters have been working to stamp out "YSA" as it is offensive, annoying, sophomoric, and unoriginal. Both the Rebellion and Midnight Riders released a joint "Fan of Code Conduct" which looks to rid the supporters section of such actions. Unfortunately, running a supporters group is much like herding cats and cultural change takes time.

The mess that transpired only serves to highlight the bigger problem the Revolution organization has... that they are stuck in what is commonly referred to as MLS 1.0. The fact that newcomers (and even some older clubs) to MLS have soccer-specific stadiums, supporter friendly policies and expectations, and successful marketing that shows positive growth in their team's area. The Revolution has none of these markers of a successful MLS franchise.

And while Schimmel points to "healthly" relationships with the Revs FO, the rot in the club comes not from well-meaning people behind desks, but a lack of understanding coming from the ownership of what it takes to become a successful American soccer franchise. Look at the Revs hesitation in signing a "designated player" (Benny Feilhaber basically fell into their lap via the allocation order rule and even then it seemed as though they were going to pass), look at the lack of progress of finding the team a proper soccer home, look at the limited marketing and family-sanitized approach to game day operations and one can see the frustrations underlining what transpired last weekend.

Where do the Revolution and its supporters go from here?

Schimmel wondered out loud, "Honestly, there is no one solution that can probably satisfy everyone. Regardless of the advances we make, overall, the perception of our ownership and the venue we play in will always serve to create discord."

"The incident has ballooned into something far bigger than a simplified argument about a fan's right to swear. It is now for better or for worse serving as a referendum on how the club's most loyal fans feel about the organization," he said.

Teams across the league use its supporters to market the team, the atmosphere they create is the stuff that draws the TV cameras in, and is, more often than not, celebrated by the fans in the rest of the stadium. In the cavernous Gillette "the Fort" is often the only audible crowd noise and when the majority of the section left the match the difference was clear. The Revolution can't both promote "the Fort" culture and then actively restrict some of the elements (and off-color comments) that come from it.

This is a crucial time for American soccer in New England. After drawing 65,000 to the same place for the U.S.-Spain match the Revolution drew barely drew 6,500 to a midweek match against Toronto FC (although it was during the Stanley Cup Game Seven with the Boston Bruins) and 14,500 to the Fire match. The potential for growth in the Boston-area is there and has been since the Revolution's arrival in 1996.

Stories like this one only heighten the perception that the ownership isn't serious about American soccer and putting down solid roots. With much of the American soccer world's eyes on Kansas City last week and seeing their ownership's commitment to American soccer and the positive working relationship the club has with its supporters (including its own members bar!) just shows that it can be done.

Many long-time season ticket holders and members of the supporters groups are questioning their commitment to a club they've given so much support to, but that the club has given so little back to them. If the actions from Saturday's game and Bilello's comments are to be taken as evidence, the team appears to have put its lot in with family-sanitized game day "atmosphere" (which research shows the family dollar in American soccer is credibly fleeting) rather than the supporters who are there game in and game out. If the Revolution loses "the Fort" then they may have just lost the entire plot.

The Revolution supporters have meetings scheduled with the Front Office, but only time will tell if American soccer in the Boston-area can survive such a disaster that occurred this past Saturday. At this point both sides are talking past each other with the Revs FO concerned about the language and the supporters concerned about their treatment by security personnel and other issues festering underneath this latest incident.

In the end the best solution to this problem might come from the most simple idea. One commentator wrote that to end the "YSA" chant just "put the fucking ball in the net and there won't be a goal kick."

There you go.

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Tags: Major League Soccer, Making The Case, New England Revolution, Supporters Groups

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