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Thoughts On Saturday's South Ward Protest

The South Ward is not going to look like this on Saturday, at least not for the first half.
The South Ward is not going to look like this on Saturday, at least not for the first half.

Most New York Red Bulls fans are probably aware by now of the South Ward’s planned protest for this weekend’s game against FC Dallas. The three supporters’ groups, the Empire Supporters’ Club, the Garden State Supporters, and the Viking Army have decided to sit silently for the first half of the match to express their displeasure with the manner in which the club treated the US Open Cup. This is the culmination of much frustration amongst the fans, both over the past fifteen and a half seasons and within the current campaign.

Unfortunately, the debate over whether or not to protest (and what form a demonstration would take) has devolved, in part at least, into a debate over the merits of Red Bull’s ownership of the club. Are decisions too heavily based on Red Bull’s marketing strategy, or have the owners made valuable improvements to the club that outweigh these distractions? This debate has become quite heated and nasty, with supporters becoming very polarized between the anti-Red Bull and pro-Red Bull factions.

The news of Saturday’s protest has driven a new wedge between different groups of supporters – not necessarily along the same pro- and anti-Red Bull lines. Many fans believe that this is the best way to get the attention of the front office and team ownership, while others feel that the players need our support even more in this game, given the recent run of very poor form and the fact that Dallas is one of the top teams in the league.

I’m a newcomer to the South Ward, as I only started standing with the Garden State Supporters in Section 133 this season. I make no claim to tell anyone else how to act on Saturday, and I expect that no one will do the same to me. I certainly support the more specific object of the protest: throwing away the US Open Cup was a shameful decision by Coach Hans Backe; it was disrespectful to the club and its supporters. Further, the insistence on playing three mid-season friendlies (away to Montreal Impact and the two Emirates Cup matches) and fielding strong sides in those games has and will hurt the Red Bulls this year.

However, it seems that the protest has become imbued with a certain anti-Red Bull quality as well. In an ideal world, the New York MLS team would be owned, named, and controlled by the fans (in the same way as Barcelona and Real Madrid, among many clubs with such a model). This club would have a world-class stadium in New York City itself, excellent playing personnel, and its first goal would be winning matches, with playing attractive football as an important secondary concern.

That club does not – and probably will not ever – exist. Some fans will probably attack me for my view, but I think that on the whole Red Bull has done a lot of good for this team, and that we should not conflate short-term failure (i.e. the team’s poor performances this season) with concerns about the ownership. I don’t like that we have to play so many friendlies, "Vettelgate" was a very poorly managed bit of marketing, and the decision to throw away the Open Cup was simply ridiculous. Like all of us, I've been annoyed (to put it mildly) with the Red Bulls’ recent form.

At the same time, Red Bull has provided the infrastructure for the team to succeed: we have a world-class stadium and one of the best squads in MLS. While I would prefer that our club badge did not include the logo of an energy drink, I will accept that because of what Red Bull has done to help this team and its fanbase. Further, the inclusion of an anti-Red Bull piece in the protest may needlessly divide the supporters when our focus should be on the Open Cup debacle and prioritizing meaningless friendlies over trophies. The string of poor results since the end of April have brought this issue to a head: had the team been performing well in the league, this debate would never have reached its current stage, and the issue of Red Bull's ownership would not be part of the discussion.

I’m not completely sure about the decision to be silent for the first half on Saturday, but I do understand why the supporters’ groups came to it, and I will participate. We must make the reasons behind the protest clear to the rest of the fanbase (who should not tell the supporters’ groups to make noise, considering how quiet they usually are), the club, and the players, and those reasons must not include general objections to the Red Bull ownership. Including those concerns distracts from the immediate problems of the club, and would make the front office and ownership less likely to make changes. Red Bull is not leaving any time soon; the fans must accept that fact and focus our efforts on reshaping the club’s priorities toward winning games and trophies. I hope that our forty-five minutes of silence on Saturday will be a step toward that end.