This season hasn't quite turned out as planned for everyone connected to the San Jose Earthquakes organization - the current Supporters' Shield holders are struggling to earn wins, the front office is putting a brave face on a delayed stadium and the biggest supporters' group, the 1906 Ultras, is on indefinite probation. In short: stumbling, mumbling and grumbling all around the football pitch here in San Jose.
Let's kick off with the statement from the Earthquakes front office describing the most recent imbroglio with their main supporters' group.
"Due to inappropriate tifo display at the club's match against the Portland Timbers at Buck Shaw Stadium on July 27, the 1906 Ultras' tifo privileges have been indefinitely suspended for all matches. The sanctions that were applied on April 20, 2013 will continue to be enforced. Those sanctions included the following:
● The 1906 Ultras will be placed on indefinite probation.
● The 1906 Ultras' travel privileges will be indefinitely suspended until further notice.
● The 1906 Ultras will not be allowed to utilize controlled smoke at any match.
● Due to the probation, language will be strictly monitored."
Now, let's dribble through the timeline of the complex chain of events that bring us to today's state of affairs, as a result of which the 1906 Ultras find themselves constrained by the travel restrictions only two weeks ahead of their annual jamboree for the LA Galaxy away fixture at the tautologically named StubHub Center - it's a hub and a center?
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March 23, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders (Buck Shaw).
So far so good - or is it?
April 1, 2013: Meeting between the Ultras, players and Quakes management.
A group of Ultras convene in the Earthquakes front office conference room with management and players in a meeting called by then head coach Frank Yallop to discuss what Quakes president Dave Kaval referred to as a grave problem: Don Garber's orders to ‘Stop The Profanity'.
April 14, 2013: Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes (Jeld-Wen)
A Portland fan's car is damaged by members of the 1906 Ultras. The 1906 Ultras owned up, apologized and agreed to make reparations, which have still to be accepted. Investigation of the incident by the Portland police is ongoing; fans from either side have yet to be prosecuted.
April 20, 2013: Sanctions handed down by the Earthquakes front office.
The 1906 Ultras are put on probation by the Quakes front office, under the terms defined in the statement above.
June 29, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy (The Stanford Game).
Smoke bombs were released by both LA and SJ fans; issues with stadium security that Ultras feel were not dealt with properly by the front office.
July 13, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders (Buck Shaw)
Even with the probation still in effect; the 1906 Ultras present banners at the Seattle game.
July 15, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Antigua Barracuda (Kezar Stadium).
A few Ultras exited Kezar with the understanding that re-entry was permitted; it was not. Some 1906 Ultras left and cheered from outside the parking lot fence.
July 17, 2013: San Jose vs. Portland Timbers (Buck Shaw).
San Jose Earthquakes hosted the Portland Timbers at Buck Shaw stadium; a profanity was heard during the national anthem from Section 109; the tifo displayed was approved by the front office, and different banners appeared throughout the game.
July 29, 2013: All-Star Game Twitter question to Don Garber about Ultras ‘sexist' banner.
The banner (not the tifo) in question read: "Only in PDX does running over a female make you a victim." In response Don Garber said his "Ops people" would look into it.
July 29, 2013: Earthquakes announce new stadium will open in second half of 2014 season.
Unforeseen problems prepping the stadium site, have led to a delay in the start of construction.
July 31, 2013: The MLS All-Star game.
Don Garber talked about Chivas discrimination suit and league expansion - fan profanity and supporters' groups were not discussed.
August 2, 2013: 1906 Ultras are on probation (again).
The San Jose Earthquakes released a second statement defining continued probation of the 1906 Ultras.
August 3, 2013: 1906 Ultras meet with Dave Kaval.
Ultras feel the front office breach the terms of the probation by extending it due to smoke at Stanford, the Portland banner and alleged bad language in the Seattle game.
August 4, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Chivas USA (Buck Shaw)
The 1906 Ultras remained silent during the 2-0 victory over Chivas USA - Wondo's first game after returning from national team duty. Many non-Ultra fans perceived this as petulant; the few Ultras that cheered the goals were quieted by other Ultras.
August 6, 2013: Protest discussed among members of CLS Round Table.
The perceived petulance was discussed, as was various offensive behaviors in Section 109 that was witnessed by CLS photographers.
August 7, 2013: Responses from Ultras explaining the Ultras protest.
Several responses from the 1906 Ultras explained that the protest was a response to the front office using the energy and passion of the 1906 Ultras to promote the team.
August 13, 2013: Don Gagliardi resigns from Soccer Silicon Valley
Don Gagliardi, one of the leaders of Soccer Silicon Valley, an organization crucial to the return of the Earthquakes to San Jose in 2008, "resigned from SSV and SSVCF to make clear that my actions and statements related to the Ultras probation are mine alone and should not be construed as emanating from SSV or SSVCF."
August 18, 2013: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Sporting KC (Buck Shaw)
The 1906 Ultras arrive late, and remain silent until 19:06; their singing was well received by the rest of the stadium. Placards are raised saying ‘Lift The Ban" and t-shirts emblazoned with "Hey MLS: Don't cross the line! Collective punishment is illegal in California."
Present: Ongoing probation.
The 1906 Ultras are still prohibited from attending away games, including the August 31 game LA Galaxy game at the StubHub Center.
Now let's look at the diverse set of interested parties - how do they fit into this complicated 1906-piece jigsaw puzzle, and how can they find the corner pieces so they can work together toward a solution?
The view from the Front Office.
The front office already has its hands full dealing with the public relations issues around the delay of the new stadium. Any negative publicity is especially sensitive at a time when you are trying to sell season tickets for its inauguration. So, it's easy to imagine that their PR machine is doing its utmost to manage the public perception of the club - a perception that has taken a hit with the news of the 1906 Ultras probation. Add to that, negotiations with the 1906 Ultras for their location in the new stadium have not been going well, with provisions deemed too small by the supporters' group to allow for their expansion. This season's behavior of the 1906 Ultras is undoubtedly perceived as a reflection of the club, and its standing in the eyes of MLS. As a result, press releases on the probation thus far have been sparse, and limited to just a few facts.
The first 1906 Ultras probation has surely garnered the attention of MLS, and Zach Woosley's recent question of the league's commissioner centered the San Jose Earthquakes in his field of view. Woosley's question about a ‘sexist' banner was chosen in the MLS All-Star Game Twitter Q&A with Don Garber, and added to the existing pressure from MLS on all clubs, not just the Earthquakes, to eradicate profanity in the league. Garber's responded that his "Ops people" would look into the banner - interesting that he used a term that implies a military style operation; not exactly ‘black ops', presumably ‘blue and black' ops. Woosley has since reflected on his choice of the word ‘sexist' (he would edit it to ‘inappropriate'), but by now MLS has the San Jose Earthquakes in its sights.
The MLS leadership has a publicly stated policy against profanity in general and the YSA chant in particular - listen to Quakes goalie Jon Busch and Nelson Rodriguez (Executive VP of Competition, Technical & Game Operations for MLS) in Howler Radio's entertaining take on the YSA chant here. It's ironic that fans are subjected to language equally crude from the players themselves at reserve games and in open practice sessions, where it's hard to be out of earshot. Goalkeepers are often the best choice for a game of George Carlin's Seven-Dirty-Words-Bingo. MLS's stance on profanity is beyond the scope of this article, but given that soccer is more prone to profane chants than other US sports, and MLS wants more TV coverage, and the FCC fines network TV stations for profanity, then it's easy to understand how MLS broadcast ecosystem is evolving. Perhaps Stephen Colbert & Hugh Laurie's selection of words, are acceptable to the FCC, and might also be suitable for MLS - just a thought.
This brings to bear a larger issue for the 1906 Ultras - dealing with a front office that has to be responsive to the supporters' group's wishes while toeing the MLS line. The front office is feeling the pressure from two directions and so the question becomes: Are these two different directions compatible? It's time for some half-time orange slices while we mull that one over.
The view from the bleachers.
Kicking off the second half among the non-Ultra fans in the Buck Shaw bleachers, one finds a mixed response about the value of the 1906 Ultras to the Earthquakes as a whole. Most non-Ultras understand that the youthful demographic of Supporters' Groups is more boisterous than the general population of the stadium. Some non-Ultras will point to their profanity as a negative, and appear to be on the same page as MLS on YSA etc. Some general fans even use words like ‘thuggish', ‘belligerent' and ‘aggressive' in describing the 1906 Ultras and are pleased that the front office has clamped down on them. They agree that matches need "boisterous, noisy supporters" but would appreciate a more thoughtful approach to tifo: "I have seen it done with a much brighter and often humorous spirit."
Outside of San Jose, there's plenty of evidence within social media that the 1906 Ultras reputation precedes them. Even if the offenders make up a minority of the Ultras, these are the very fans that are noticed most - just like that obnoxious tourist complaining about the length of the line for Blue Bottle Coffee Line inside the Ferry Building. Zach Woosley succinctly summed up the perception of the 1906 Ultras from many observers outside the club. "The Ultras, right or wrong, have developed an extremely negative reputation among the MLS social media community for some of their tifos and their aggressive attitude towards other supporters." The incident in Portland only added to that reputation, and when Woosley brought up the banner with Don Garber, inevitably one way MLS (and by corollary the Earthquakes front office) could make its feeling understood was to (re)impose the probation.
No angels the 1906 Ultras: during the Chivas USA game a CLS photographer was hit by a beer bottle hurled from 109, and was later flipped off as he was shooting two smiling girls with their fingers on their lips, to indicate their silent protest for the photograph. When the Ultras were silent, it was easier to notice the reactions of the rest of the crowd. The crowd was vocal throughout the game and certainly voiced their displeasure at Boca's tackle on Salinas in no uncertain terms, and cheered the goals heartily. All Quakes fans have devoted much of their time and money to support the club, and most are equally as ardent, and knowledgeable as the 1906 Ultras in section 109.
Coming into last Sunday's home game against Sporting Kansas City, the 1906 Ultras were still prohibited from bringing tifos, banners and flares. For this game, each member of the supporters' group brought a single sheet of A4 paper, imprinted with the words "Lift The Ban." Some members also wore t-shirts with the slogan: "Hey MLS: Don't cross the line! Collective punishment is illegal in California." They arrived later than usual, and sat in place as they had done at the Chivas game - so it looked like another silent protest in Section 109. This time however, at exactly 19:06 the Ultras stood en masse and started their singing - for the remaining 84 minutes and beyond the final whistle. The 1906 Ultras were received with warm applause from all around the stadium - their voices had been missed, and on this occasion sounded especially loud and passionate.
The view from section 109.
The Ultras haven't always been in section 109 - they began as the San Jose Ultras in Section 135 of Spartan Stadium from 2003-2005. When the Earthquakes were down 4-0 to LA in the 2003 MLS Cup playoffs, the Ultras unveiled a huge banner: "Win or Lose, we will always be here for you!" The Earthquakes scored five goals to win 5-4, and that slogan was cemented as the ethos of the group. I won't duplicate the 1906 Ultras version of the events leading to the probation here; it can be found on their website.
Historically the front office and Ultras had a loose, but working relationship, with the Ultras key goal to maintain independence from the club they support. In a few short months this season the relationship has been eroded, resulting from the accumulation of events described in the timeline above. In recent conversations with many of the 1906 Ultras, their feelings boil down to three key grievances: punishment of the entire group rather than individuals; a lack of communication about the terms of the probation from the front office and hypocrisy.
Entire group punished for the minority: "I was not in Portland on April 14. I am innocent of any wrongdoing, yet I am banned from traveling to StubHub Center for the Quakes game in L.A. on August 31 unless I resign from the 1906 Ultras". General fans also share this view, and have asked Dave Kaval to be more compromising and creative in his approach: "individuals should be dealt with, if there's a transgression, not an entire group of supporters."
Communication and transparency (or lack thereof): there is a perception of no response from the FO to members of the 1906 Ultras "we have demanded the reasons for the ban and its repercussions in writing and he [Kaval] has refused to do so". "The club seems to think that we are not allowed to criticize any of its actions in public, which would make us employees, rather than supporters.
Hypocrisy: The Ultras are extremely displeased that on one hand the club is punishing the supporters' group, and yet all the while they are using the 1906 Ultras to promote the team in advertising: "It is also ironic that the Earthquakes have a slogan, ‘Unleash your Passion," when they are attempting to "leash" their most passionate fans, censoring them and illegally punishing them, again regardless of their individual culpability or lack thereof". In another often quoted example of the front office's double standards "the Angel City Brigade got a chance to travel back up to San Jose two weeks after assaulting police officers in Santa Clara; they had no bans or restrictions at all."
The view going forward.
While 1906 Ultras capo, Dan Margarit did not comment on any of the specific events outlined in this article, he was very keen to emphasize that "the spotlight should be on the team and on the club in general...I still believe that the team can make the playoffs this year, and every game left is critical in order to achieve this goal." Obviously, everybody is on the same page with that sentiment.
In the meantime, does it really make sense to continue the ban with the away game in LA approaching on August 31? There have "never been any issues in LA, because [StubHub Center] security escorts the entire group from their bus into and out of the stadium." The terms of the probation prohibit travel to LA as a member of the 1906 Ultras. Since the Ultras can't be ‘more' prohibited (like you can't be ‘more' pregnant) it's always possible that some may choose to defy the ban. What about other supporters' groups such as the Faultline and the Casbah? Are non-Ultra Quakes fans also prohibited from making the trip? If we're not going down the road of eternal probation we need to find a clear solution sooner rather than later.
So, how can we get to a solution? The Quakes have a diverse fan base, some of them belong to supporters' groups, and others do not. The first step will be for everyone recognize and respect each other's method of support and value its existence, and understanding its impact on the other denizens of Buck Shaw stadium. Earning the mutual respect among all fans, the club and its players will go a long way toward a creating a harmonious atmosphere - and harmonious doesn't have to be quiet. Here are some suggestions for a solution:
A more communicative front office: Dave Kaval has not publicly defined the reasons for the ban more specifically than is given in the club's statement on its website, and not to the satisfaction of the 1906 Ultras. He politely declined to comment for this article. The front office might be better served to define the length of the probation by moving away from the term ‘indefinite.' Furthermore, the front office could stipulate specifically what steps the Ultras need to take to get the probation lifted, which will provide the framework for the return of the Ultras for home and away games. The 1906 Ultras passion will be critical as the team struggles to make the playoffs, and the players need all the support they can get.
Define ‘good' and ‘bad' behavior: The 1906 Ultras can enter into a good faith agreement with the rest of the organization: Curtailing any bad behavior in section 109 will be the first steps to invalidating their infamous reputation around the league. They will still bring their boisterous chants and unique and imaginative creativity to tifo focused on supporting the Quakes rather than denigrating the opponent. Perhaps the single most productive change might be to develop a 1906 Ultras code of conduct, which they don't have at the moment. A self- defined code of acceptable criteria, taken by them to the FO for agreement, would allow them to maintain their independence. How (and if) the Ultras are willing to monitor themselves remains to be determined, but would show a willingness to participate in their reinstatement, and define their own standards for acceptable behavior going forward.
Focus on what the front office and the 1906 Ultras can do together: The foremost goal is to repair the eroded trust: representatives from front office and Ultras would discuss the terms of the code of conduct and how it should be implemented and monitored. Focus on the common goal of supporting the players, generating success on the pitch. Hopefully enough time has passed - a cooling off period perhaps - for calmer heads to prevail and make this happen.
Peep! That's the end of ninety minutes and neither side has forged ahead, so it's on to extra time and penalty kicks. Everyone hates penalty kicks, so let's figure it out people; it's not rocket science - unless rockets are banned under the terms of the probation and I am forced to find another analogy. The punishment of the 1906 Ultras by prohibiting travel to LA on August 31 might prove more difficult to handle if individuals decide to travel to the game anyway. A concession by the front office in repealing the travel ban in time for away game at the StubHub Center Plex Arena Dome might be one tangible first step to re-establishing the trust between the two groups.
In the meantime, we're all disappointed that the inauguration of the new stadium is delayed, but we're all willing to wait a bit longer for it to be built the right way. It would be a great transition to hold a short summertime march across the railroad tracks, and enter the new arena with a unique combination of players, staff and die-hard fans - a march that will showcase the new Earthquakes Stadium as an arena for great, noisy, and passionate soccer.
My grateful thanks are due to the many 1906 Ultras and non-Ultra Quakes fans I talked to about the events leading to, and during the probation. I did also attempt to get Dave Kaval to answer some questions about the chain of events, but was politely declined at this time.