Where there's smoke, D.C. United supporters feel they are under fire

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United's hardcore fans are simmering after one of their own received a year-long ban, a sudden spike in longstanding supporter-club tension.

WASHINGTON – There has always been two sides to D.C. United's crowds at RFK Stadium, the aging concrete coliseum that stands tall as the only venue to witness all 20 of Major League Soccer's seasons.

RFK has a “quiet side,” the lower western stand that rises above the team benches, where families, youth teams and more casual spectators generally sit. And on the east lies the “loud side,” the home of United's main organized supporters groups, where the “harDCores” stand, sing, drink, curse and jump until the half-century-old bleacher seats beneath them bounce and sway like an old diving board.

D.C. United was the first true home for supporter culture in MLS, thanks mainly to the capital city's multinational diversity and the club's uncommonly visionary approach to fan relations in the league's early years. Where other teams zoned in on the suburban “soccer mom” demographic and gazed upon rowdier supporters with fear and loathing, D.C. welcomed and nurtured supporters groups like the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, and were rewarded with the league's best ambiance in its first decade of existence.

This new regime in the FO [front office] refuses to see us fans as a part of the club – which, before they wiped out a lot of the FO and rehired, they used to."

- Matt Parsons, D.C. fan banned for one year

But the year-long, league-wide stadium ban handed down on Monday to Matt Parsons, a prominent member of the District Ultras supporters group, has stunned and angered many of the Black-and-Red faithful and threatens to open up ugly new rifts between casual fans, the most devoted enthusiasts and the club's front office just as United's long-sought new stadium finally approaches reality.

“I just think they thought this would scare enough people and we would move on, like your average consumer,” Parsons told FourFourTwo on Thursday. “But this new regime in the FO [front office] refuses to see us fans as a part of the club – which, before they wiped out a lot of the FO and rehired, they used to.

“Now, we are just consumers like anyone else, the sense of community is gone, and all focus is on the new stadium, which is starting to seem like it might end up being more of a curse than a blessing if the current state of affairs are just signs of what's to come.”

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

United officials allege that Parsons was spotted by club employees, and recorded on video, setting off a “smoke grenade” in a tunnel under Independence Avenue SE that connects RFK's Lot 8 – home of D.C.'s famous pregame tailgating scene – to the area directly adjacent to the stadium before United's match vs. FC Dallas on March 26. Multiple sources have confirmed to FourFourTwo that the device in question was made by UK-based manufacturer Enola Gaye, a style commonly used by MLS supporters and others abroad.

While the supporters groups have for years respected a ban on smoke devices inside the venue itself, they allege that United has suddenly expanded the technical definition of that banned space to “stadium property,” encompassing the enormous parking lots that flank the arena.

“We are very focused on the safety of our fans – all of our fans,” said Lindsay Simpson, United's director of media & communications. “We have an obligation to each and every single person that enters this facility, whether it's the parking lots or the building itself, to give them the best possible experience. And we have an obligation to comply with the law.”

D.C. United provided FourFourTwo with the following statement on from District of Columbia Fire Marshal Mark Wynn:

“Public safety is our primary concern and firework restrictions are in place to reduce the likelihood of personal injury or property damage. Setting off firecrackers or any device with an inserted fuse is prohibited in the District of Columbia. Any firework found to be dangerous by the Fire Chief or the Office of the Fire Marshal to the safety of any person or property is also prohibited. Such devices are not allowed to be used in public assemblies without a valid permit issued by the Office of the Fire Marshal. Any prohibited devices found on site will be confiscated and destroyed.”

In light of Parsons' leadership position in the group – he was one of a few supports group representatives given stadium credentials for the purpose of setting up installing banners and the like – the Ultras have also been slapped on the wrist, with the club revoking their clearance to use flags, flag poles and drums during Saturday's home match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. (United subsequently backtracked on drums, which will apparently be allowed after all.)

“The idea that flags, drums, tifo and such are some sort of supporter privilege is ridiculous,” District Ultras leader Srdan Bastaic told FourFourTwo, lamenting what he sees as “suits” attempting to “turn MLS back to a '90s soccer mom league.”

If United officials envisioned their action as a deterrent to the fan base at large, as Parsons and others allege, the severity and summary nature of Parsons' punishment has thus far prompted exactly the opposite reaction. Condemnation has rained down on United and MLS from supporters across the league; the District Ultras are planning a protest for Saturday's game by leaving their section empty for the first half, and they say they have received pledges from other MLS supporters groups to take similar action in other stadiums.

“For whatever reason, it feels like they have chosen to make a statement with this particular punishment,” said Paul Sotoudeh, a longtime member of the Screaming Eagles board of directors who serves as that group's game day operations coordinator.

“It's a very severe – an extremely severe, frankly – penalty. And it's a penalty for something that, you look at the fan code of contact and you're really getting down into the weeds as to whether it's a violation or not.

He continued: “It's never been enforced in this way before and they chose to enforce it in such a draconian kind of way up front, that really strikes me the wrong way and I think that's a lot of what people are reacting to.”

Perhaps most frustratingly for many fans, Parsons and his fellow Ultras were in the midst of a “unity march” arranged to bring together all of the club's supporters groups, who have feuded intermittently in years past, in a combined show of support at a rough time for their team. That is also why club staff was filming the occasion, with plans to celebrate the drumming, chanting and various other displays of passion.

fan Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Red Bulls fans with flares ahead of last year's playoff game vs. D.C. (fan Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

D.C. United is off to a bumpy start in 2016, with no wins and just three points from their first five league games as well as a brief and winless cameo in the CONCACAF Champions League's knockout stages. The quality of play has been uneven as a rejiggered roster comes to terms with itself and Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta, the team's featured offseason acquisition, has spent most of the time on the substitute's bench despite big expectations on his arrival from Boca Juniors.

United fans pay high ticket prices relative to the rest of MLS for a no-frills game-day environment at grungy, decaying RFK. Their team has been pragmatically constructed on a tight budget even relative to the league's salary-cap structure. The club has parted ways with many of its long-serving staffers in several waves of layoffs and firings, part of a sustained period of spending cuts as it seeks to stem the tide of annual losses under the terms of their lease with the city, which owns and operates the stadium.

Longtime fans say the relationship between supporters groups and club officials has slipped from a family-style bond in the early years to something more akin to a strict consumer transaction under the current ownership group, led by Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir and managing general partner Jason Levien. Add it all up, and you have a recipe for disgruntled supporters. This week's events seem to have pushed many to the breaking point.

“Parsons will be first to tell you this is not about him, it's about this constant sanctions thing. It just hit the bottom now because it was in the parking lot, because D.C. went out of their way to do it,” said Bastaic.

Over the years, MLS has struggled to find the middle ground between strict law and order at matches and celebrating their colorful supporter culture. Last month's incident in D.C. is the latest in a string of conflicts between supporters and clubs around MLS, including comparable situations in Los Angeles and Montreal.

USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

Those rankled by United's actions readily point out how much of the league's promotional materials prominently feature exactly the kind of smoke device that brought on his ban.

“We would have NEVER imagined the club would act like this,” Parsons said. “There are actual fireworks set off in the same parking lot after nearly every game. Smoke used to be [a] regular [occurrence] inside and outside of RFK for years.

“Then add on top, the league's current-year commercial prominently featuring fans with smoke and flares … But obviously they pick and choose what rules they want to enforce and on whom they want to enforce them.”

MLS officials say their clubs take the lead on establishing and enforcing local regulations. League vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche said “it is standard protocol for MLS to administer the league-wide ban for violations such as this.”

“We've always been pretty clear that passionate fans and organized supporters groups are part of what makes attending a Major League Soccer match – or a soccer game throughout the world – so special,” Courtemanche told FourFourTwo this week. “They provide a festive environment that is unique to the sport. But we must have rules that strike the balance that provides our fans with this vibrant in-stadium experience while also ensuring that they have a safe environment.”

Courtemanche noted that Columbus Crew SC have collaborated with their supporters groups and local authorities to install a smoke machine under the Nordecke section of MAPFRE Stadium. Conversely, in San Jose, the Earthquakes were unable to obtain fire department permission to use smoke devices due to Avaya Stadium's proximity to Norman Y. Mineta International Airport.

“When it comes to smoke, our policy is pretty straightforward: When the fire marshal approves smoke within the stadium or on the stadium premises, and the club approves it, then we support that. If the fire marshal does not approve it, then we support that too,” he said. “Ultimately the responsibility rests with the clubs, and we're going to support what they do at the local level.

“All those marketing and promotional materials are using imagery where smoke is permitted by the fire marshal and the club at that venue.”

In the case of D.C. United, Simpson said the club received reports of fans in the vicinity of the smoke device feeling ill, and children being frightened, but did not provide specifics. Sotoudeh, who has asthma, noted that he experienced no symptoms despite standing in close proximity to the smoke.

“If I was not ill as an asthmatic, nobody was ill, because I was a few feet away from it at one point,” he said.

...unfortunately for MLS and D.C. United, this won't just get swept under the rug."

- Matt Parsons

Parsons said he plans to remain an active member of the District Ultras despite the ban, though he may relocate from the D.C. area for professional reasons later this year. He has received voluminous support from fellow fans and expects the issues his case has exposed will continue simmering around MLS.

“There are groups from around the league currently in communication, planning coordinated league wide actions throughout the season,” he said. “So, unfortunately for MLS and D.C. United, this won't just get swept under the rug. They must have thought this would be a one-fan issue, but I am not the issue at all, the issue is the unfair treatment of the group and groups around the league.

“I mean, I am glad it happened to me and not someone else who might be more upset by the ban. And I am glad it's bringing attention to the hypocrisy of the league and the issues facing supporters around the league.”

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