In light of history it wasn’t all that surprising. At Saturday’s game between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers at San Jose’s Buck Shaw Stadium, the 1906 Ultras – the largest Earthquakes supporters group – unveiled a banner across their section that read "911 Solutions for 107 Problems."
For many familiar with the history between the 1906 Ultras the banner was an apparent reference to an April, 2013, incident in Portland in which two of the 1906 Ultras membership were arrested in connection with an instance in which Earthquakes supporters punched a Timbers fan, attempted to enter the fan’s vehicle, jumped on the hood of his car, and shattered his windshield.
It was one of the most striking and publicized incidents of supporter violence in an American soccer supporters’ culture that is notable worldwide for its lack of hooliganism.
If it seems farfetched that the 1906 Ultras would so publicly boast of such an incident, consider that before the previous game between the Timbers and Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium in July of 2013, the 1906 Ultras unveiled a banner that read, "Only in PDX, running over a female makes you a victim." That banner was plainly a reference to the same incident, alluding to the fact that the victim of the assault attempted to drive away after his alleged assailant attempted to reach into his car, knocking the female assailant to the ground. When the Timbers fan stopped to ensure she was unhurt, additional Earthquakes fans attempted to enter his car and jumped on the hood.
Not only were the Earthquakes aware of the meaning of that banner, they sanctioned the 1906 Ultras for its unveiling.
So when the 1906 Ultras unveiled their banner on Saturday evening, it did not take a quantum logical leap to conclude the 1906 Ultras were again referring to the April, 2013, incident in Portland. And it was no surprise, then, that Earthquakes security took down the banner in the 23rd minute of the game.
Shortly after The Oregonian posted an early version of a story to this effect near halftime of Saturday’s game, the Earthquakes spin machine launched into damage-control mode. The sign was not a reference to the April, 2013, incident, an Earthquakes spokesman insisted, but rather an allusion to an incident at a U.S. Open Cup game between the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders in early-July in which a named Timbers supporter was arrested. The Earthquakes spokesman knew this, he said, because the 1906 Ultras had told him so.
Let me get this straight. Rather than a reference to the highly publicized incident between 1906 Ultras members and a Timbers fan that had been the subject of Ultras tifo the previous time the Timbers visited San Jose, this sign actually alluded to a relatively obscure months-old incident at a game between the Timbers and not-San Jose.
I got a $1.3 billion bridge over the Bay I’d like to build you.
On Saturday, the Earthquakes told Portland-based media in the press box that the incident would be reviewed on Monday as part of their standard review process.
Business as usual, I suppose.
But let’s hope the Quakes’ naïve effort at damage control has given way to common sense. Because blindly accepting the 1906 Ultras’ story about the intended meaning of their banner is like making the dog sleep outside after the frosting-faced child pins the midnight consumption of the chocolate cake on the golden retriever.
And even if there was some subjective intent on the part of the Ultras to allude to the incident in Seattle, it would have been obvious to anybody with knowledge of the 1906 Ultras’ history that most would interpret the banner as boasting of the April, 2013, incident.
But why is this important? It was, after all, just a banner raised by a few hundred supporters in two sections of a stadium.
As noted, North American soccer has, by comparison, a good track record when it comes to supporter violence. A combination of a relatively stable political climate, relatively peaceful religious environment, the modest popularity of MLS, and a network of well-organized supporters groups have kept hooliganism largely under wraps on this continent. As MLS grows, however, and its supporters become more numerous and impassioned, vigilance against hooliganism will only become more important.
In light of the 1906 Ultras' well-earned reputation, then, the time has come for the Earthquakes to take decisive action to control their largest supporters group.
The Ultras certainly should not be present at Wednesday’s return fixture in Portland. And the San Jose club should think long and hard about whether the Ultras will be welcome as an organized supporters group when the Quakes’ new stadium opens next year.
Anything less is merely damage control. And certainly not common sense.