Facilities for visiting fans need improvement
Ever wonder what really brings real atmosphere to a soccer stadium? No, it isn't piped-in music, pyrotechnics or cheerleaders. The real atmosphere comes from the fans in the stadium, both home and away, who breathe life into the world's game.
This is something Major League Soccer is going to figure out as more soccer-specific stadiums are built, new fan bases created and rivalries established. All of these factors are going to eventually force MLS to deal with the evolution of the MLS traveling supporter.
Through Major League Soccer's first dozen years, away fans haven't been much of a factor. Aside from the New York-Boston and New York-D.C. series, there were rarely ever opportunities for large fan groups to converge on an opposing stadium. This is beginning to change and will change more dramatically, as the league expands and more teams build soccer stadiums in environments that make long trips more worthwhile.
With this in mind, MLS needs to begin ensuring that its teams make hosting traveling supporters a priority. But, why should teams care about opposing team's fans?
Teams should care because those fans help complete the game-day experience and there is something artificial about a soccer match without that group of fans sporting different colors, singing different songs and expressing different emotions to the action on the field. Teams should care because they want their fans afforded the same courtesy and because few things help strengthen the bond between supporters and their club, than the experience of road matches.
Visit a European league and you can see firsthand how this dynamic environment contributes to the experience of every fan, away and home. Walk into Old Trafford on Derby Day and you will see a corner of the stadium clad in light blue as Manchester City fans sing their hearts out despite being woefully outnumbered. Enter Ibrox on Old Firm Day and see the same thing, defiant Celtic fans signing and rooting their team on while blue-clad Rangers fans attempt to drown out their songs.
You don't have to visit these types of high-profile rivalries to get a sense of what traveling supporters bring to a match. Last Wednesday I had the chance to watch Red Bull Salzburg face Wacker Innsbruck at Bullen Arena in Salzburg, Austria. It was your standard Austrian League match between rivals some 50 miles apart. Even on an extremely cold night and at a match that had been rescheduled just three days earlier, there was still a vibrant atmosphere helped by rival fans who were not only accommodated, but had their own specially-designed section of the Salzburg stadium.
Built into the design of the stadium was a separate section of seating which replaced regular individual seats with rows of concrete. The section was covered by mesh netting to protect the fans from projectiles. Innsbruck fans waved signs, lit flares and offered up chants and songs in a game-long repartee with Salzburg fans in what an observer familiar with MLS couldn't help but think would be a preview of life at Red Bull Park a year and a half from now.
If you don't think traveling support is that important of an issue for MLS, think again. The recent addition of Philadelphia as an expansion franchise will create two fresh rivalries that will benefit from the proximity of Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C. Throw in the addition of new MLS destinations (like Toronto and Seattle) as well as new stadiums (like Kansas City and Real Salt Lake) MLS fans have more and more reasons to hit the road and support their teams.
Are MLS teams ready to deal with the growing phenomenon? The fans of at least one team don't believe so. According to members of Section 8, the Chicago Fire supporter's group, a request for 500 tickets for Chicago's lone visit to Toronto's BMO Field, on Oct. 18, was turned down by Toronto FC. The Canadian club has offered the group 100 tickets. It sounds like a reasonable compromise if not for the fact that more than 200 Chicago fans made the 700-mile trip to Toronto a year ago.
While it is easy to see Toronto FC wanting to hold on to as many tickets as possible considering the club is regularly selling out BMO Field, turning away potential visitors to Toronto doesn't seem like a smart idea either. You would have to wonder what the city of Toronto and its tourism board would have to say about hundreds of potential visitors being told not to bother visiting. Considering the city contributed to a portion of the cost of the stadium, and technically owns it, I can't help but think Toronto city officials wouldn't be too keen on that sort of short-sightedness.
MLS needs to establish a policy that mandates a standard visiting supporter's section in every stadium in MLS, as well as tickets that opposing teams can sell and distribute to its traveling fans. The league needs to institute a policy so that it isn't left up to clubs that might not understand or appreciate the importance of traveling supporters in the league.
Traveling fans are a resource soccer in the U.S. needs to spend time cultivating because it is the growth of the diehard fan that will ultimately help MLS thrive, and it will be those traveling fans who will eventually give MLS matches the kind of natural atmosphere they need.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.