To say that D.C. United had a difficult week would be a bit of an understatement. After another listless draw on the road against the San Jose Earthquakes, the club returned home with the aim of finally putting together a win.
Indeed they did receive their win on Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps, but the growing discontent with the team was everywhere to be seen at RFK Stadium.
At the heart of the issue between the Front Office and the Supporters, in particular the District Ultras, was the club’s decision to ban supporter Matt Parsons for the remainder of the season.
Parsons had reportedly been seen using a smoke bomb in the lead up to the club’s 3-1 loss to F.C Dallas two weeks ago. Charles Boehm and Pablo Maurer provided an excellent explanation of the entire incident in FourFourTwo .
The response across the multiple supporters groups was rather swift. The District Ultras did not show up for the first half of Saturday’s match and the other supporters groups marched in unison in the lead up to the game.
Multiple other supporters groups across the MLS board showed their support during match-day with signs and tifos. The entire situation had a very surreal feel to it, teams and groups who normally want nothing to do with United supporters on a given match-day stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity.
It was almost as if the collective outrage and furore at a league who has no problem advertising and hawking supporters culture but punishes creative thought had finally bubbled over.
The issues between United supporters and the front office are nothing new. Increased raising of ticket prices, reduction of supporters seats and general lack of communication from the front office has stifled what used to be a very strong partnership between both bodies.
It would be easy to say that the lack of MLS Cups in recent years as the main point of contention. But United’s supporter culture is far deeper than that. It is a culture that has pulled in people from various ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds a true representation of the variety of passionate soccer supporters that exist within the D.C. Metro area.
Having grown up as a D.C. United supporter and having covered the team for over five years, I have seen the highs and lows of the squad. For any person looking to break in a child, friend, or spouse into the beautiful game these are the people that you want to be around.
Although there is no indication as to what specific event changed the relationship, the change in ownership seems to be a major reason. In May 2010 D.C. United majority owner Will Chang sold most of his stake in his club to a consortium that included Erick Thohir (current owner of Inter Milan) and Jason Levien (former CEO of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies).
Initial optimism has turned into cynicism as the club has plateaued both on and off the field. That neither Thohir or Levien were at the match on Saturday to directly address the issue is a concern. That Levien was in the news on match-day for reportedly buying Swansea City is another problem, especially given that D.C. supporters already have their concern with Thohir’s lack of interest with the side.
So why does D.C. need to repair this relationship? Because of the timing. With United finally set to get their own soccer-specific stadium around 2018 the club will have a chance for a fresh start.
Every move that this club makes over the next two years will be placed under a heavy microscope. Thus any time that the club can avoid controversy it should. Given that it took over ten years to get this far on the stadium it would be a pity to see all of the goodwill die off.
The obvious answer would be to win. But that does not seem to keep people in the seats. Despite D.C.’s recent success the club continues to see drops in attendance.
Even MLS’ trademark of over inflating attendance figures does not seem to do the trick. Getting people to come to D.C. United matches requires a much more thorough and exhaustive effort at directly engaging with the supporters.
So how does D.C. do it? First, they should take a page from their rivals the New York Red Bulls and set up a town hall meeting. Not only did the meeting produced some very fascinating audio, it also produced an open discussion.
The major criticism of United is that they have largely been silent, that they do not listen to their supporters. Even if they have to take one on the chin it would at least be a step in the right direction. Have the voice of D.C. United, Dave Johnson, host it.
Second, do something positive with the money that the club earned with Mr. Parsons. As ticket sales are non-refundable the club will profit no matter what. Rather than taking the revenue and calling it a day, work with the D.C. Stadium Authority (who own the stadium) to use the match money to help support a local soccer charity like D.C. Scores.
The club could also work with the District Ultras to find an appropriate charity, if they are willing to do so. It sounds like a small gesture and, in truth, it is, but it is the small gestures that truly matter.
Third, work with the supporters groups to address their concerns and see if there ways where both parties can come to a compromise. If the issue is a matter of fire code then work with local D.C. Fire officials to ensure that proper safety standards are being met. If the club has issues with particular songs or behavior then talk to the supporters and try to work on ways address these issues.
The biggest misconception of football supporters both in D.C. across North America is that the fans are a bunch of drunk hooligan nilhists. While there is certainly some elements to that, it is not the full picture.
These are people who are professionals, spouses, and parents. They can certainly be reasoned with and work with United.
As time goes on the initial controversy over the Parsons suspension will fade. But supporters do not forget and should the club choose to do nothing to repair relations with supporters they will be the ones that suffer.
Hopefully D.C. can learn their lesson and mend fences before it is too late.