Monday, April 11, 2016

[D.C. Untied 6] D.C. United vs Vancouver Whitecaps, April 9, 2016

At first I wasn’t sure what to think when I read Srdan’s message to the District Ultras earlier last week. One of the leadership, Matt Parsons, was banned from MLS for an entire year? For using a smoke bomb in the parking lot? How can you be banned from MLS? It didn’t make any sense. I was half-convinced it was an inside joke that I was just too new to understand--like the periodic requests from Ultras members for bucket hats. But then the angry comments started pouring in. And the articles and more articles and open letters. The banning of Parsons was a match tossed onto some very, very dry kindling. And the complaints are not just about new logos, old stadiums, a losing team, or prioritising the pearl-clutching suburbanites who come for one game every couple of years over the fans who show up week after week, the complaints are about a lack of respect.

I’m still learning what it means to be a part of a supporter group. Yes, I’m new. But when I joined the District Ultras last year, I did so because they were the group that welcomed me, in my librarian outfit having come right from work on a summer afternoon, with open arms and not only accepted my desire to stand and shout like an idiot for 90 minutes during the games but encouraged it. Sometimes I even got a flag to hold and wave. They call it the “90 minute mentality” and I love it. I love having 90 minutes a week when I am cut off from everything except the soccer happening right in front of my face. Rain or shine or freezing cold, win or lose, that 90 minutes is magical.

The District Ultras are the one section that is always in the game, jumping up and down and helping to create a festive atmosphere in the stadium. With D.C. United on a losing streak and game attendance nowhere near sold out, why on Earth would D.C. United and MLS punish the Ultras so harshly for something as innocuous as a smoke bomb in the parking lot? The official explanation--smoke bombs are illegal in D.C. so...--didn’t seem to be quite on the level. There was a stench coming from the D.C. United front office, the smell of buzzwords, efficiency, synergy, and #branding. This wasn’t about smoke, it was about trying to exert control over the fan culture that exists in Lot 8.

By banning Parsons for a smoke bomb, a common and fairly harmless smoke bomb, MLS and D.C. United are saying they do not trust the fans to self-police or act on their best judgement. If there is a possibility of getting one angry e-mail from a parent who happens to wander into the supporter group section of the parking lot, MLS and D.C. United don’t want it to happen. The on-going infantilization of middlebrow American culture has reached Lot 8. The Corporate Structure is unable to trust fans to manage themselves. In order to satisfy the few, to fit everybody on the spreadsheet, the entire world needs to become a bland, trigger-warning’ed safe space in which nobody need take responsibility for themselves because our parental surrogates have already cleared away every dissenting opinion and potentially offensive t-shirt slogan.

What the people in suits don’t understand is that you can’t take away the autonomy of the supporters groups and still have supporters groups. MLS and D.C. United use images of supporters groups--often with smoke bombs because smoke bombs are fucking cool--in their advertising. The atmosphere that the supporters groups create is a huge selling point for MLS. The quality of the soccer may not be as good as in the English Premier League but the English Premier League is an expensive plane ride away. MLS gives you a live soccer experience in your backyard and the supporters groups are a huge part of that.

But the supporters groups can’t be fit on a spreadsheet. Their merchandise isn’t official. Their tifo messages aren’t sent through ten layers of focus groups. They may offend people with their chants. They may put up a message that is on brand and usable for marketing purposes or they express a desire to fuck Isis in the mouthhole using a copyrighted comic strip character:

Trigger warning! How to explain that to the parents of the ball kids?! “Mom, what’s an Isis and what does FCK mean?” So are the Orlando fans going to have every tifo message approved by their front office now? I hope not. The edge of unpredictability and chaos that supporters groups bring to the game are part of what makes them so much fun. If you throw out “FCK ISIS” and you also throw out YOU CAN’T HOLD US BACK. And maybe that would be okay if MLS was the NFL or the NBA, sports with huge built-in casual audiences… but can MLS really afford to lose the hardcore fans? The fans with a personal connection with the team? And do MLS teams really want to play in stadiums half-full of people half-paying attention?

All of this is to say that when I walked into Lot 8 on that cold, bright Saturday afternoon I was in full contrarian mode. FCK ISIS? No, FCK NORMCORE AND ALL IT REPRESENTS! Try to control me, will you? I wore the most obnoxious jacket I have (a G-Dragon inspired blue fur coat I made myself) and hidden under three layers of shirts was a white tank top I’d marked up with the phrase 反対 (hantai, basically “I’m against it” in Japanese)... just in case.

(Learn how to play the stump game! You have to flip the hammer, catch it, and smack down an opponent’s nail all in one motion.)

The plan was to march in like normal but leave our section empty during the first half of the match and then jam the 90 minute mentality into 45 minutes for the second half. Some traveling Vancouver Whitecaps fans had reached out to us and invited us into their section for the first half… all we had to do was put up with a few (rightfully) smug comments about the superiority of the Canadian healthcare system!

The first half of the game was quiet. Watching from high above, I felt disconnected. Although that could have also come from having more time to drink beer before we started chanting. D.C. United played well but when the first goal game near the end of the first match, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad on behalf of my new friends from Vancouver… especially since they’d graciously put up with me being tipsy and obnoxious in their section.

But the second half. THE SECOND HALF. THE 90 MINUTE MENTALITY crammed into 45 minutes unleashed a wave of noise throughout RFK. We were loud. You can ban us, take away our smoke, signs, and flags, but you cannot take away our voices or passion. I was braced against the front wall so hard that both of my kneecaps were covered in bruises the next day. And though my blue fur jacket wasn’t visible, you bet your ass I started flashing my sharpied 反対 tanktop. Filmi Girl don’t give trigger warnings.

And when Sabo and Acosta paired up to score two goals in the final few minutes of the game, giving us a 4-0 win, our first of the season, I ripped off everything and joined my fellow shirtless bros in shirtless bro-solidarity. (Yes, that was me in the last few seconds of the broadcast.)

I don’t know if the team had any idea about what was happening with the fans but that win felt extra sweet.

What will happen next week? Who can say… the D.C. United front office has shown no signs of reaching out to smooth tensions even as fans from across the country have been showing their support.

The tension between the popular culture that’s sprung up among fans and the corporate structure that wants to control it will not be solved overnight but they’re going to have to do a better job than this. Banning a prominent member of a supporter group with no warning, for doing something that MLS uses in its advertising all the time? That’s some serious bullshit. Fans are right to be angry.

Finally, I want to give a huge thank you to all the Ultras for keeping an eye on me. I did notice and I very much appreciate it. I’m usually not that… sloshed but it’s nice to know that y’all have my back if I am. And another massive thank you to the traveling Vancouver fans who went into enemy territory to join our tailgate and then let us crash their section. At the end of the day, we fans are all on the same team. And last but definitely not least, a giant CONGRATULATIONS to D.C. United for not giving up and not listening to the naysayers and going out there to WIN! You boys did good. Thank you.

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