For those of us watching from the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Major League Soccer is, to say the very least, an education. English football developed into what it is today as the result of one hundred and twenty years of evolution. MLS, by comparison, hasn’t had much time to develop a universe of its own. It has had to be, in the already cluttered landscape that is American sport, be a revolution in itself, and it is still, as far as many Americans are concerned, on probation. There is still time for MLS to collapse in on itself in the same way that its predecessor, NASL, did in the early 1980s when the crowds drifted away and the backers pulled the plug. Its development has been slow and steady. MLS still can’t compete on an even keel with American football, baseball and basketball, but it has made significant in-roads into the psyche of a nation that had looked for many years as if it would prove to be entirely impervious to the game. Crowds are growing and money is starting to be invested on being in star players from overseas. The problem side of the game, however, is also starting to rear its ugly, spit-flecked head.
Last weekend’s friendly between Columbus Crew and West Ham United seemed to be an innocuous enough looking fixture. A chance for West Ham to stretch their legs ahead of the Premier League season and maybe make a few friends in what could turn out to be a lucrative overseas market. For the Crew, it was a money-spinning fixture, and a chance to flex their muscles against Premier League opposition that is, by most European standards, reasonably beatable. It ended up, however, creating headlines across the world for all the wrong reasons, when some West Ham United supporters wandered into a Crew area. The video footage of it all is, to British eyes, pretty tame stuff – a bit of pushing and shoving and some beer glasses being knocked out of people’s hands and, ultimately, just one arrest, which took place outside of the stadium. For American soccer fans, however, it has seen a level of hand-wringing that has so far been absent from the forward-looking world of MLS.
The supporters of Columbus Crew (or at least a tiny minority of them), it would appear, have something of a “reputation”. They named themselves the “Hudson Street Hooligans” (!) after watching the recent hoolie-porn flick “Green Street” (in which a naive American student gets himself embroiled in a world of hooliganism that is, of course, glamourised to the point of parody). They are, ultimately, little boys living out a fantasy. You see them on YouTube, frantically masturbating over shaky hand-held camera footage of football hooliganism from across the world. Decent stewardship and a handful of banning orders would probably nip the problem in the bud. These, however, seem to be two things that are unlikely to happen. In a thoughtful article on EPL Talk, The Gaffer notes that American stadium security have no idea of crowd control, preferring instead to react to incidents with the same heavy-handedness that the authorities in this country used to use.
Where, then, does responsibility lie for nipping this in the bud? Firstly, it lies with MLS itself and the clubs. The MLS website issued a statement from Columbus Crew which pointedly didn’t condemn the behaviour of athose involved, choosing instead to play down the incident. This story has been massively overstated – it made the British media primarily because an English club was involved – but a firm put down from MLS and the Crew would have at least helped, but the club have stood accused of turning a blind eye to incidents at previous matches, and playing it down (even if it deserves to be played down) sends out entirely the wrong message. The responsibility also, however, lies with the supporters of other MLS clubs and of Crew supporters themselves to not be goaded or drawn in by these supposed “hooligans”. Don’t give them anything to fight about or fight for, and they will remain on the margins. Finally, we can but hope that stadium security and the police learn the lessons that had to be learnt in England in the hardest possible way. Effective crowd control pushes all “hooligans”, no matter how genuine they may or may not be, to the sidelines. Ultimately, it doesn’t need matter what happened at the Columbus vs West Ham match last weekend, who did what to whom, or even the extent to which the shoots of a problem may be starting to sprout. It will be better for everyone involved in MLS in the long-term if any problem, no matter how small, is nipped in the bud straight away.