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Major League Soccer's Balancing Act With Supporters Groups

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The atmosphere inside U.S. soccer stadiums is unique for American sports. Supporters groups, some styled on soccer's Ultras movement, are a big chunk of the core energy driving atmosphere at MLS games. Every year, their numbers grow, there is an evangelical quality to the phenomenon. Attend a game with them and you may want more. Front offices of MLS teams, and MLS itself, have an ongoing dialogue with the groups, negotiating the limits of behavior inside the stadium, sometimes imposing bans on displays of banners, and culling individuals who step over the line. MLS keeps its eye on the reactor. Managing the rising arc of soccer attraction has become key to the league's growing success. The balance between a happy day out for the family at the stadium and the possibility of U.S. soccer having a "hooligan incident" similar to occurrences in other countries could keep some MLS executives awake at night.

This past week, the league imposed sanctions on Houston Dynamo fans who travel to games in other cities. The punishment came in reaction to disturbances last season, including incidents that took place during the MLS Cup Final in Los Angeles back in November, when LA Galaxy beat Houston to lift the cup.

In a letter to the leaders of the supporters groups in Houston, MLS decided: "As of March 1, Dynamo traveling supporters will not be permitted to utilize items listed as Supporter Group Exemptions in the MLS Prohibited Items policy (e.g. flags, banners, confetti, drums). This sanction shall continue to be in effect until otherwise notified by MLS." Houston's violations included "(a) multiple illegal smoke bombs were brought into the stadium, ignited and thrown onto the field. (b) various objects that presented a safety risk thrown onto the field in the direction of players and stadium personnel. (c) obscene language and gestures by multiple supporters."

"What is paramount for our clubs and league is a safe and festive environment for everybody and we know that there are different styles for supporting a club," said Will Kuhns, Director of Communications for Major League Soccer. "There is a symbiotic relationship. There is always give and take, a discussion, a dialogue between the clubs and supporters groups. Everybody is pulling for the same thing which is to grow the sport and increase the enjoyment levels in the stadium."

MLS decided to make public the letter outlining the sanctions, "to make sure people didn't exaggerate what had happened," according to Kuhns. Reaction was diverse amongst fans across the country. The Texian Army, one of the affected Dynamo's supporters groups, announced on their website, "These sanctions by MLS serve only to harm the Texian Army and other Dynamo supporters groups at a time when the team needs them the most -- on the road. We feel it also sets a dangerous precedent when the league imposes sanctions against all supporters groups of a team because of the actions of a select group of individuals. We call for further dialogue on this issue and hope that the league will reassess its decision to sanction Dynamo supporters groups."

MLS kicks off its season next week.

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