Commentary

MLS’s increasingly sterile supporters groups

Photo: Paul Rudderow
CF Montreal banned Ultras Montreal and all associated supporters from attending any matches at Stade Saputo earlier this month after the club described a “rash of incidents,” including unauthorized pyrotechnics and alleged violence towards visiting fans. The ban bars any groups in the 132 section of Stade Saputo (where the incidents have been most frequent) from participating in any team event or initiative. The ban comes after relations between Montreal supporters and the club have frayed over the last few years, as the club has pushed for a more family-friendly environment at what used to be one of the more rowdy venues in Major League Soccer. 

While the club cites multiple incidents of violence and unauthorized pyrotechnics as the reason for the ban, many allied with Ultras Montreal believe the ban is a final attempt to silence the group’s outspoken protests centering around club ownership and leadership. Ultras Montreal and other Montreal supporters groups have been increasingly outspoken about their disagreement with the club’s current trajectory, especially since ownership rebranded the club from the Montreal Impact to Club de Foot Montreal. 

While the situation in Montreal is all a bit murky, with both sides making hard-to-verify claims, what is apparent is that another historic MLS club has decided to turn their back on and abandon their most passionate set of fans. But why does it matter, and what’s the context?

Since 2010, there’ve been several supporters group bans that preceded the most recent case in Montreal. Most notable is the Chicago Fire’s ban of Sector Latino in 2018. The supporters group was banned for “repeated violations of the fan code of conduct”, with the final incident being a smoke bomb set off on July 2nd of 2018. The ban effectively removed over 200 season ticket holders from section 101, and ended Sector Latino’s long history of supporting the Fire. It was a significant move for a club struggling with attendance and atmosphere that left their stadium feeling empty and hollow. 

Montreal and the Fire aren’t alone in their banning of supporters. Both Houston and DC have had their own conflicts in the last decade, resulting in either severe sanctions or outright bans of major supporters groups. While some would argue that a club has to prioritize fan safety and has a right to control who attends their games, is it fair for a club to dictate how fans show their support? 

Soccer is and has always been a game of the people. From its inception, it’s garnered a following seen nowhere else in the sporting world. Fanatics of all different backgrounds across the globe have congregated to support their clubs in various ways, and in many cases, have outright defined who their clubs are. For Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires, their lower-class, hyper-local fans have created an atmosphere of Carnival at almost every matchday. In Hamburg, St Pauli supporters have transformed their club into the kings of grassroots football, with left-leaning politics that have penetrated the very DNA of the club. Even in the United States, fans of Chattanooga FC have embraced their non-league (sometimes in a league) status and made the club incredibly successful with their fan-owned philosophy. All of this is to say that when you limit who can support your club and how, you restrict what your club can become. 

Take what happened to DC United as a prime example. Before their move to Audi Field, DC United had support consisting of multiple main supporters groups. Each group had its own style, chants, and traditions. Combined in the decrepit lower bowl of RFK, the various groups created an atmosphere that, at the time, was unrivaled by almost anything in Major League Soccer. DC United truly felt like a melting pot of soccer tradition. Sure the support ebbed and flowed, but at the heart of it was a group of individuals who felt loyal to their club no matter what. That changed when the group moved to Audi field. 

When DC United moved grounds in 2018, the club announced that the Screaming Eagles would be in charge of ticket sales and atmosphere for the new supporters section at Audi Field. While the club made no statement dismissing any other group, it was clear that United favored the more family-friendly/less problematic of the club’s supporters groups. Infighting amongst various supporters groups followed, chiefly between Barra Bravas and the Screaming Eagles. In the end, Barra Brava and District Ultras (two of the three largest supporters groups) essentially became left out when it came to the new ground. Hundreds of diehard fans were essentially left out to dry by the club, and while they remain loyal to DC, many feel the club today is far removed from the one they supported at RFK. DC’s atmosphere has remained solid, but with two of their most prominent supporters groups effectively removed from the picture, the club’s lost an intangible element of what it once was. It’s honestly a bit sad to see. 

Sure, clubs like Seattle, Portland, and Columbus have retained hardcore fan support for years. However, after years of missteps with supporter relations, other clubs now find themselves with little to no organized support. In all honesty, the Sons of Ben are part of a shrinking demographic of decently sized supporters groups with a unique identity. Clubs now seem to have almost no organized support or supporters that seem painfully similar to those at another club. With no disrespect to either club, as both have created incredible environments that are enviable, at first glance, aside from color, can you really tell the difference between Austin FC supporters and The Bailey of Cincinnati? I don’t doubt the passion of either of these fanbases, but when the league and its clubs tell you how to support, the result can eliminate so much genuinely unique culture. 

Montreal served as one of the last bastions of genuinely original support in Major League Soccer. The group was founded in 2002 and followed the impact for ten years before its debut in MLS. The group took on its own unique identity through that period, structured around ideals outside of any organized contact with the club. The group truly represented and still represents the consensus of Montreal Supporters and stands to serve as a uniquely independent group. Without the passionate and unwavering support of Ultras Montreal, it’s hard to imagine MLS would have even looked at the city for a franchise. For readers of this website, that’s a sentiment that should strike home. 

40 Comments

  1. Let me start by saying that while I have been a season ticket holder since day 1 (I put down my deposit on February 28, 2008), I have never been a member of a supporter’s group and have only sat (stood) with the supporter’s during a couple of Open Cup road games. When I’m not being too distracted by the game, I do try and sing along from 50+ yards away, albeit with very few others in my section joining in.
    .
    I do think it’s appropriate that the clubs ask their supporters to keep the language clean in their chants and songs. Is “F**kin’ Philly” really more effective than “Filthy Philly”? Obviously racist/sexist chants should be banned and perpetrators removed since those types of things can get all fans banned and force the team to play behind closed doors (not that it’s been an issue in Chester). I can also see a case made for limiting incendiary devices. My wife wanted to leave Wednesday night when the Club America fans set off a smoke bomb because she was having trouble breathing. Should the team be allowing for some fans are severely discomforted in order for others to provide “atmosphere”? (She did stay for the remainder of the game as I told her that I would catch up with her but had never left a game early and wasn’t starting now.)
    .
    As far as complaining about the team’s ownership and direction, I think it is inherent that supporter’s groups not only be allowed to give their opinions, they should be encouraged to do that. While there are some differences between the people in the supporter’s groups and the other fans, my feeling is that the supporter’s groups do have a pretty good pulse on things and that if they aren’t happy, the other fans won’t be happy either, and the other fans are a lot more likely than the supporters are to stop buying tickets. I think most of us agree that the supporter’s showing their unhappiness with Nick Sakiewicz which led to significant changes was a major turning point for the Union.

    • RCTID! Here I am from Soccer City USA… and while I was a paying member of the Timbers Army… I did not like the general direction the elected leaders were taking it… first it started with taking certain chats, then it moved to removing flags that were a part of the clubs history due to it might offend someone… well if that’s going to be the stranded then why don’t we take out all the songs and chants that drop the F-bomb or offend the other team… I pray that it never gets that far because I would still find my way inside to say F- Seattle one more time!

  2. It’s hard to separate these moves from MLS’s apparent desire to homogenize every team into a bland City FC in which even the home and away kits are nearly indistinguishable from those of other clubs — or, more appropriately, franchises.

    Montreal is a prime example. The Impact date back to the early 90s and were moved “up” to MLS in 2012 or so. That name was discarded in favor of the ridiculous Club de Foot moniker and decades of identity wiped out.

    I’m sure this has nearly everything to do with marketing. Perhaps it’s about making these teams palatable to the legion suburban soccer fans out there, but I think it has more to do with an over-concern of brand control in which each ownership group wants to control every aspect of team identity, from the name to the songs sung in the stands. Can’t have bizarre regionalisms creep in. It’s a shame.

    • Pete, totally agree with your points here. This really does seem like a tip of the iceberg thing, where perhaps the rational for some of these moves is much deeper than purely wanting to “clean up” the stands. It’ll be interesting to see whaat happens down the line with new and existing supporters groups.

  3. I appreciate your passion and support for passionate fan bases. But this article is a superficial take that fails to grapple with problematic aspects of some supporters groups.

    You ask: “…is it fair for a club to dictate how fans show their support?” I say hell yes! I do want a club to prevent violence. I do want a club to ban pyrotechnics or smoke bombs that might be dangerous or make the game uncomfortable for others. I do want a club to either eliminate obscene chants or maybe limit them to certain parts of the stadium.

    Which if any of these opinions do you disagree with? Unfortunately, because you fail to address the hard issues in the article we don’t know for sure, except that you implicitly seem to be siding with supporters groups regardless of their behavior.

    • When I read, “is it fair for a club to dictate how fans show support”, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. But then again, the author is in their 20’s. I’m sure a lot of the ultra groups in Italy and England that throw bananas and scream monkey chants at black players would agree with your assessment.

      • The white guys in the owners box at these matches have far more in common with the racist SGs you mention than the SGs that the white guys in the owners box want to get rid of.

      • Not in the market of replying to comments most of the time but I feel like I’ve got to step in here.

        Any discriminatory action should be dealt with in the most severe way possible. “Is it fair for a club to dictate how fans show support” is entirely meant to critique ownership that decides to be overly controlling in regards to supporters culture (pyro/chants/decent against ownership/etc).

        Drawing a comparison between the actions referred to in this article, and the abhorrent discriminatory behavior that can occur around the game is unfair and potentially damaging to supporters of the game everywhere, regardless of how strictly you believe they should be policed.

    • More importantly, let’s remember when we buy a ticket, we agree to a code of conduct. So, if a club deems something to be out of the bounds of their code, it is what it is. I’m all for a very passionate fan base, I’m part of a supporters club myself, but I think respect is the most important part of it all. Respect for your fellow fans, the opposing fans, the teams, staff, stadium, everything!

    • Danielo D'Cosa says:

      He’s a bit clueless, DU were never a big club. Pocos pero locos. plus he’s talking a bit old new with regards the the supporter issue at Audi. Problem now is DCU is recognizing very sterile groups that have no membership and have no actions in the Chico Stand, that are really just special interest groups. One if them Rose Room claim to represent the marginalized POC fandom, yet were silent when leaders of two groups that have or had large POC membership were banned. Hypocritical. Joke groups.

  4. This is a steaming hot take.
    .
    Here is my take:
    .
    A lot of people take their children to the match. Profane chants should not be allowed. Period. There is nothing that justifies that.
    .
    Incendiary devices are dangerous and should be banned. Period.
    .
    If the size of the SoBs shrinks because of it, so be it. I’ll always take the side of families over a bunch of entitled drunks who think only they should dictate how people should cheer at the match.

    • Maybe you should hide your kids from everything scary for the rest of their lives and see how that works out.

      • yep! that’s what he should do.. woke fans should move to family seats.. no close to the fans… in nycfc we have bleachers and we are separated from regulars fans!

      • Adam Guillette says:

        Well said Tim. I’m not sure why the interests of young children should supercede the interests of grown adults who pay for their tickets and support the club loudly and regularly.

      • Adam, you’re ignoring the interests of adults with young children who may be less likely to go to the game when in a less family friendly environment. You know, the adults buying tickets for their whole family rather than just for themselves.

    • $hit Take Bro says:

      By steaming hot you must mean steaming sh*t take. Adults are the ones who pay for tickets and go to the games. If an adult chooses to bring a child that may hear swearing at an event meant for adults, oh well. Your kids probably curse more than the SoB section. Also, the SoB sections are generally the only sections that are constantly singing and chanting through the whole match so yeah, they do get to dictate the chants considering many of the other sections are silent.

      • Can’t agree with your take here. Sporting events are NOT meant for adults only, they are for the whole family and have been going back at least 50 years when I went to my first baseball game as a 6 year old.
        .
        By your logic, we should probably eliminate public schools because they are for children and children don’t vote or pay taxes.
        .
        Owners need to make decisions based on what draws the largest crowd. If they tell the supporters that they can’t have chants with swears and that causes 50 supporters to stay home it’s still better for them (and the game) than if 50 families of 4 don’t bother to show up because they don’t want to expose their families to the language.

    • So says the entitled parent.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I like the article and the passion and energy taken to write it and could offer a nearly 2000 word response because it is deep and nuanced and certainly an issue – but I won’t because I don’t have the time unfortunately.
    .
    I will offer this- your idea while valid, “soocer is and always has been a game of the people,” is flawed and undermines the entirety of the argument unfortunately.
    .
    As an ideal this is the case, in practice however, the game in this country has never been ‘a game of the people’– it is a game of business, business plans and suits. Under the bridge in Austin, TX or Brooklyn, down UPenn on a Wedesday evening, on any field in America on a Sunday morning before field hockey practice for preteen girls it is a game of the people and is governed, argued and rooted in a deep passion that is what makes the game better than any other game in the world.
    .
    In America soccer is business and because of this, it will be goverend with every aspect of it as moving close to the middle as possible. There are many redeeming benefits of this. While homogenized, at least we do not hear much of the vile things a person of color hears in Italy or Hungary or or or or and at least a player does not have to run for their life to a waiting car after a staggering defeat for fear of their life… these are positives and in truth are likely positives worth sacrifing the greater good of people controlled tribalism for.
    .
    If soccer was a game of the people in America it would rival the tribalism we are seeing on a daily basis already in this country. There would be bloodshed. There would be chaos and Veteran’s Stadium 700 level stuff on a regular basis. I’d love to see promotion relegation becasue that would give the game to the people on a grander scale then we currently have. That will not happen however… at least not through MLS and it’s hold on US Soccer policy.
    .

  6. Larry Guengerich says:

    Took 19 folks to the match with Orlando. Mixed ages and mixed understanding of “soccer culture.” All in all, even the chants with strong language were understood as a part of the event.

    I get the balance between desiring fans in the stands and allowing strong soccer culture aficionados to do their thing.

    I am less sure how to actually “do” the balance. All this to say, I appreciate how SOB has seemed to walk this line better than some other MLS groups.

    What I don’t get is the impression some other teams SG give off that they are the only true fans and that all others in the stadium don’t matter. My kids have been coming to matches since there were Union matches to attend (starting with an infant the first year). I would hope parents making memories with their kids never are forced to stop coming because of fear of things happening like happened in France over the weekend.

  7. I was troubled taking youth teams to a soccer game where obscene chants were clearly understandable. There is no place for that.

    And you have all missed one of the big drivers for the owners behavior. Liability. If someone get hurt by a smoke bomb, the team and the stadium are on the hook, and the dbag that threw it is never to be found.

  8. Chris Gibbonds says:

    Perhaps this is part of the global experience that American owners just don’t value all that much? Other American sports seem to have great atmospheres without it.

    Maybe front offices would rather own their IP, rather than have it tied to a group of customers that turn over at roughly 50% per year? I suspect Union brass would give you a version of that answer.

    Teams need ticket revenue in MLS to make real profits. Since supporters pay the least of anyone attending a game, maybe they’re lower on the list in terms of needs than other paying customers?

    I don’t know any of these answers.

  9. Do we want things to boil over like they did at Pat’s last Wednesday? Yes, apparently everyone involved was a fan of Club America and nothing was the Union’s fault, but the team does have a responsibility to have an environment where the people are safe walking back to their cars after the games and some riled up idiot doesn’t start using them as a punching bag.

  10. Once upon a time men were made of steel and boats were made of wood. I grew up with an immigrant mother and a father who came from coal country. Life wasn’t easy but me and my 6 brothers figured it out. Main liners will never understand the working class. Sticks and stones people. Insults meant nothing to us. We had the ability to shrug them off like gnats in the summer. Actions are what counts. We’ve grown up in good times and you all should know what that breeds.

    • The only people who say things like “sticks and stones” are those who’ve never been on the receiving end of a racial, ethnic, or sexual slur in their lives from people who actually meant them. What some folks call political correctness today is just people not being a-holes to each other for no reason.

  11. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I see both sides here. Soccer is hopefully a sport of the future here, and if I had kids I wouldn’t want them in an environment that allows foul language and the potential for violence. But I get that the big appeal with this sport is the crazy atmosphere. My first game I unknowingly got tickets to sit in the River End, and while I’ll likely never do that again, I recognized the electricity that was lacking in other sports. It was kind of a “this is gross and disgusting, but next chance I get I gotta snag 2 tickets”. I’ve been sitting at the other end ever since and while I wish that side would be more passionate, I’m grateful to avoid the mosh pit.

  12. I want an atmosphere at a game, but this is a joke of a take. You can have a fantastic supportive loud atmosphere without being assholes (and worse).

    When fan groups do not handle their extreme members it leads to the teams needing to. That is bad, but only because the issue should have been handled internally by the supporters group in the first place. And if you don’t know the difference between being fun and being an asshole, it is hard to know what to say.

  13. You should really talk to fans in other countries what they think of ultras or other groups. My wife is from Belo Horizonte, but she never attended a match for Cruzeiro because women and families have long stopped going to Série A or B games. Supporter groups are not universally beloved around the world: their histories involve violence, ties to organized crime, fascism, and corruption. Sure, MLS hasn’t gone that far and not all supporter groups are like that, but the point is they can often be cesspools for the worst elements of fandom.

    A better way to look at this is college sports. Is the student section the loudest part and adds a ton to the atmosphere? Sure. Are schools still policing student behavior? Hell yeah because left unchecked they’d turn the whole game into a sloppy drunk frat party. Same for supporters.

  14. College kid so desperate to be European.

  15. Maybe you should start showing your 4 year old horror movies and pornography and see how that works out.

  16. The Orlando City supporters groups in their pre-MLS days would go on away days and pick fights with the opposing fans, as well as with the police/security apparatus at those venues. You really want to die on the hill of defending these Green Street LARPers?

    I’m no fan of OCSC by any stretch of the imagination, but the one thing they did right before they jumped to MLS was to bring a few of these groups to heel and take back some semblance of control over the stands.

  17. as an austin fc fan the fact that nobody boos or chants “wolff out” and seem generally disconnected from the abysmal play is clearly a product of a highly managed product likely organized by the franchise (i wont use the word club if this is how they are run)

  18. woke msl is destroying the teams…

  19. For years and years ML$ marketed the atmosphere the supporters the amount of fun we were having. When this league had mediocre players and attendance all they had was us in the streets with smoke and Pyro and us going crazy in the terraces. Then the money came rolling in and they don’t need us any more. Now they give us league approved smoke pots that some guy from the front office pushes a button to ignite after a goal. That’s not passion that is marketing on our backs.. all these new supporters groups in the last 3-5 years are all front office pawns. Some of them have even been assembled by the FO some take money from them. The new trend is for the club to invent a new “tradition” and tell the supporters this is what you’re going to do.. how many manufactured rivalries do we need?

  20. I love SoB and every good, non-violent, supporters group in MLS. But they are no less indistinguishable from others than the Bailey or the Verde in Austin. This idea that Montreal’s, any of DCU’s, or the Union’s supporters are somehow unique or better I just don’t see.

    Violent behavior is the issue. Frankly, Houston has never dealt with the band of street gang members who took over their supporters section early and who threaten, and visit, violence on other teams supporters and other Houston supporters that don’t recognize their hegemony. It is plain wrong.

    Portland, Seattle, Austin, Kansas City are all examples of loud, passionate supporters groups that create world class atmospheres but are nice good people to others. That is the standard. Not hooliganism which should be banned.

  21. Mike Lastort says:

    This isn’t even remotely close to what supporters’ culture was at RFK and what it currently is at Audi Field.

    “Take what happened to DC United as a prime example. Before their move to Audi Field, DC United had support consisting of multiple main supporters groups. Each group had its own style, chants, and traditions. Combined in the decrepit lower bowl of RFK, the various groups created an atmosphere that, at the time, was unrivaled by almost anything in Major League Soccer. DC United truly felt like a melting pot of soccer tradition. Sure the support ebbed and flowed, but at the heart of it was a group of individuals who felt loyal to their club no matter what. That changed when the group moved to Audi field.

    When DC United moved grounds in 2018, the club announced that the Screaming Eagles would be in charge of ticket sales and atmosphere for the new supporters section at Audi Field. While the club made no statement dismissing any other group, it was clear that United favored the more family-friendly/less problematic of the club’s supporters groups. Infighting amongst various supporters groups followed, chiefly between Barras Bravas and the Screaming Eagles. In the end, Barras Bravas and District Ultras (two of the three largest supporters groups) essentially became left out when it came to the new ground. Hundreds of diehard fans were essentially left out to dry by the club, and while they remain loyal to DC, many feel the club today is far removed from the one they supported at RFK. DC’s atmosphere has remained solid, but with two of their most prominent supporters groups effectively removed from the picture, the club’s lost an intangible element of what it once was. It’s honestly a bit sad to see.”

  22. These guys are not banned individually. They can still go to the games. They just can’t wear the supporter gear that basically says, I’m here to f*** this joint up

  23. I love the nod to st Pauli there should be more comparisons to more leagues than that and boca Jr those dudes killed opposing fans that whole league can’t host visiting fans but it’s a different culture MLS is still growing still trying to be something US soccer is still missing identity I hate that they are using the Icelandic chant but as long as there is no genuine identity groups people clubs are just going to do the cool new thing in all aspects of the game

  24. It is weird that so many supporters groups are obsessed with restrictions on pyro being unfair somehow.

    Of all the stances an ownership group can take, I think that “please don’t light fires in the stadium” is completely reasonable.

    That said, I think the situation in DC is totally a microcosm of MLS 3.0. In which if it can’t be monetized, it has no place in the league. I cancelled my DC season tickets in 2019 and have had no regrets doing so. We had magic. The magic was killed by the thing we wanted forever, a new stadium.

    • Good post Sean. As a long time member of La Barra, I usually still stand with the supporters but it’s no longer the same. Each group had it’s own style and flavor at RFK. You were right, it was magic there, and now that magic is gone.

      As for the pyrotechnics, that was eventually banned at RFK and that was fine with me.

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