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Learning From the Message Sent by MLS to Dynamo Supporters

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I wrote a post this morning on Dynamo Theory that I pulled off the site for a number of reasons. Those reasons were all mine, there was no external pressure, capitulation or any kind of nefarious conspiracy. My post was based on an emotional reaction to MLS making what I wrongly thought was a toothless reaction to the actions of a small element of fans at the MLS Cup final and two other matches last season.

My blinders were on and what I wrote did not properly address the issue, and if anything it incorrectly portrayed my feelings about the current state of the supporters culture in Houston. So I've spent some time thinking about the situation and decided to try again at making my points in a way I feel to be more accurate with my assessment of the situation.

Let's first address the events that led to the sanctions. Objects were thrown on the field at MLS Cup 2011 by individuals in the Dynamo supporters section. Those items included mini-flashlights handed out to fans who rode the bus from Houston to LA for the match. It also included various items including glow sticks and a smoke bomb. The actions of a minority certainly reflected poorly on the Dynamo fan group as a whole, but that's how these situations work.

In addition to MLS Cup, the Dynamo supporters were cited by MLS for smoke bomb violations at the Eastern Conference Final in Kansas City and in Frisco during the team's lone trip to play FC Dallas. In neither case was the smoke bomb thrown onto the field, but they were snuck into the stadium, against supporter's code and stadium rules, and ignited in the section, which is a fire hazard.

For these incidents, mostly for the actions at MLS Cup on a nationally televised stage, the league was forced into action and essentially told the SGs, you will learn to police yourself, or we will police you. It wasn't pandering to the LA Galaxy either. If that match had been in any other stadium, against any team other than the Galaxy, the league's reactions would have been same. How the SGs choose to react to this move by MLS is their choice, but I see them having two options.

First they can listen to what the league is saying, talk with the team and MLS representatives about what they can do to improve, what has worked in other markets, and make it clear to the league that they are serious about being loud, passionate and vibrant while playing within the rules.

The other option, the choice I think they are more likely to make, is to buck against MLS. They can circle the wagons and convince themselves that the world is against them and they are being wrongly criticized and singled out because of the actions of a few people that probably weren't even a part of the actually SGs. This is not an answer, it's an excuse, a justification of a behavior that will not help the situation at all.

My earlier post fueled that mentality and headlines like "MLS Brands Dynamo Fans As Hooligans" from a post in the Houston Press today does the same.

I allowed my emotions this morning to convince me that this was another example of a bad decision by MLS, but I was only fooling myself. Plenty of other supporters groups travel in force to away matches without setting off smoke bombs or throwing anything at players, officials and stadium staff. Plenty of other groups have had run-ins with MLS or team officials concerning actions happening in their section, and they have embraced the situation and worked to change everything for the better.

The point is, while I'm sure there were plenty of hurt feelings, the proper way to deal with any type of restrictions or sanctions is to learn and improve, not bunker and act like there is a battle to be fought. What you'll no doubt see from Dynamo SGs is a canned response to these sanctions claiming they abhor the behavior that brought about the league's wrath and in no way promote these activities. While that's fine and the right PR move, there's a chance to really change how the supporter's culture in Houston works.

The Dynamo have made great strides this season in working to solve some of the past fractures between the various supporters groups in order to create a more cohesive and effective supporters section in BBVA Compass Stadium. They've given the groups inexpensive season tickets in prime seating, along with a tifo/supply budget and other perks. They want to have a vibrant and loud section of fans in the new stadium and have done everything they can to make that happen. In return they need the SGs to follow the rules, especially on the road.

Just because Section 8 sets off flares in Toyota Park doesn't give carte blanche to other groups to use flares and smoke bombs whenever and wherever they please. Every stadium has different rules, and I don't recall any of those flares finding their way onto the field of play. The Sons of Ben have approved smoke-creating devices that they are allowed to have and use at PPL Park, but I'm pretty sure they are not allowed to be used during road trips.

These are examples of playing within the rules, something that the Dynamo SGs have to learn and accept. More importantly, they need to accept their role in policing the actions of everyone in their section because if they didn't know it before, it should now be crystal clear they're going to be held accountable for what happens in their section. That's the entire point of these sanctions. It's not the league bullying you, it's the league saying it's time to get your act together and understand the expectations we are going to hold you to.

Now those aforementioned tickets were made available to the general public, so anyone could buy the deeply discounted season tickets in the supporters section. The challenge facing the SGs' leadership this season will be finding ways not only to better organize and utilize the growth, but police their sections and prevent further incidents from happening at matches.

If the Dynamo SGs believe for even one second that MLS will have forgotten everything when the stadium opens in May, they are fooling themselves. The league will be watching and looking for improvements that show the message they sent with their sanctions sunk in. If they instead take MLS' sanctions as the league protecting the Galaxy and that they are just "picking" on them, the league will come down even harder.

MLS is not trying to abolish the supporters culture in this league, they want the atmosphere in the stadiums that SGs bring. But the groups have to understand that there are rules they must operate within and breaking those rules will have consequences. The league also has a responsibility in this to be consistent in their enforcement of rules across the board. If we see smoke bombs being set-off in other stadiums, or objects being thrown in the pitch and the groups not sanctioned, they'll open the door to heavy criticism.

Will they get the message? Only time will tell, but my gut says we haven't seen the last of friction between SGs and the league in Houston.