An unseemly episode unraveled during the last New York City FC home match — and surprisingly, it has revealed a rift amongst the team’s various supporters’ groups.
As the story goes, a crew of 3-4 individuals caused panic and widespread fear amongst some of the fans within section 237. As described by several people, each asking to remain anonymous, a series of empty seats in the Third Rail section of 237 (near 238) were taken up at halftime by a group of Hispanic males decked out in bomber jackets with distinctive gang-affiliated patches adorning the outerwear. One member of this group was described as a person who “looked like he just got out of jail, with visible prison tats — and even had what looked like poorly treated knife scars across his head.”
But appearances weren’t the problem. Not by a long shot.
The group caused a raucous with their choice chants, which included racial epithets, neo-nazi propaganda and general hate speech.
These regrettable incidents happen all the time in any series of sporting events or entertainment gatherings throughout the world, and clearly do not reflect the position of the common NYCFC fan. In fact, as one fan described it, the section was actually unified in silence, fearing “someone might knife us” if they were to speak against the rowdy trio. To illustrate the level of fear, not a single video has emerged of the group anywhere online, which, as one fan explained, demonstrates the level of wariness surrounding them.
When rumblings of the “nazi incident” began to circulate amongst the team’s supporters, the finger pointing began, revealing some deep seeded ideological differences amongst each group.
For the purpose of clarity, the supporters’ section in Yankee Stadium spans from 236 to 238, with the mighty presence of the Third Rail mainly concentrated between 236 and 237. 238 has become home to some of the smaller supporters’ groups, including that of Brown Bag SC and the exclusive Hearts of Oak. While those designations exist, the area is fully general admission, meaning all groups tend to bleed into each section.
With their size, and as the only officially recognized supporters’ group within NYCFC, Third Rail received a heap of blame “for fostering the kind of atmosphere” that would allow hate speech to thrive in the bleachers. With close proximity to 238, Hearts of Oak were also fingered by many as being the home of these questionable individuals.
EOS spoke with leadership in all three groups regarding the incident. Third Rail, Brown Bag and Hearts of Oak have all categorically denied that these “Latin skinheads” were members of their group. The reality is, these were likely folks who saw a group of available seats and snuck into the section during the halftime rush. Not a single leader from any of the above named groups witnessed the incident, either.
Nevertheless, they were united in decrying the entire affair.
“There is no room for it in our sections. There is no room for it,” Chance Michaels, President of the Third Rail tells EOS.
“Hearts of Oak stand opposed to such acts of hatred, which are incompatible with membership,” HoO leader John Flanagan said. “We will do our part to keep 238 and our stadium a safe and welcoming space for all.”
Each group is in the process of addressing the incident with their members, circulating the Yankee Stadium report line to assure such issues never occur again.
But the unity amongst these groups ends there.
SPLINTERING WITHIN THE THIRD RAIL
There has been a quiet dissension within the ranks of NYCFC’s supporters, and Saturday’s incident only served to fray those relationships further. At the center of the storm? The role of the Third Rail.
Third Rail is the team’s oldest and only recognized supporters group. They have strong ties to the NYCFC front office stemming from their role in helping grow the numbers of season ticket sales for the team and actually employing the club’s current graphic designer to design their club logo.
That type of relationship runs counter to the norm for fan groups who have historically touted independence from the corporate level of club business for a more unique, grassroots look at fandom. Said perception, and several other issues, have caused a splintering within the Third Rail ranks, spawning several other groups, including that of Brown Bag and Hearts of Oak.
“We all know that the Third Rail is closer to the club and Front Office than the rest of the groups. As it stands, they’re the only officially recognized supporter’s group,” HoO’s Flanagan explains. “For example, during the opening weekend, we had a few members, some of whom explicitly identified themselves as Hearts of Oak, inquire about individual match tickets in section 238. More than one of them received a response stating that individual tickets in 238 were not an option. However, they were told that if they were to purchase a Third Rail membership, they would then be eligible to purchase a single match ticket in section 237.
“None of our members elected to do so. Make of that what you will.”
Further displeasure in the group stems from their operational stance to be the “anti-South Ward,” the New York Red Bulls supporters section, eschewing the use of capos and rigid set lists for a more organic approach to fandom.
Again, that decision set a tone within the Third Rail that several members simply did not agree with.
“A lot of us grew up watching soccer in our parents countries, or some of our guys come from other countries, so we grew up watching soccer differently,” Brown Bag leader Oscar Martinez explained. “It’s not like a baseball atmosphere to us. We like to jump, we like to sing.
“The founding members [of Brown Bag] felt they weren’t represented, that there was a single minded view to what the supporters’ section should be and we didn’t feel a part of it. Some even said they aren’t being told everything accurately.
“In the end, it comes down to we like to support in our own way and we are trying to see what can come out of this — and maybe even get a seat at the table.”
Michaels, perhaps the most visible and instrumental leader of the Third Rail, has heard it all — including accusations that the group was actually being run by NYCFC. “You know, there are times I actually almost wish that were true,” Michaels said with a light hearted laugh. “With all the time we spend on this, it would be nice to get a paycheck out of this — but no. Absolutely not. We are all volunteers and do not receive any money, anything, from the club … other than some cooperation.”
Michaels, a native New Yorker and transplanted Milwaukee resident, acknowledges the reasons for the perceived rumor, but stays steadfast in his believe that the club is indeed organically run and representative of its members. The lack of capos was a member mandate. The lack of a set playlist was a member mandate. Even the controversial use of New York City FC’s in-house graphic designer for the club’s logo has organic roots — the Third Rail employed Matt Wolfe for the project long long before NYCFC discovered him.
“I first ‘met’ Matthew Wolfe when he designed a concept logo for the club before he was hired,” Michaels said. “I reached out to him to do it at that point. The fact that he got to become the club graphic designer before we had a name and logo, that happened to work out well.
“We are the largest group. We are the only recognized group. Obviously, we were easy short hand before for NYCFC supporters. I don’t know beyond what we are doing, what we could do otherwise. We are open to suggestions! I have no ego here — I am just trying to make the club better,” Michaels said.
Part of making the club better has meant learning from some of these critiques. Already, Third Rail has begun a deeper focus on the creation and distribution of songs and chants through their newsletters and social media vehicles. The once-eschewed capos have also returned to the conversation after two vastly underwhelming and non-unified showings in the club’s first two home matches.
“Now that we are in the stadium, it is becoming clear what is working and what is not,” Michaels said. “In consultation with our members, we are exploring new ways to get the section chanting and cheering in unison.”
All of these initiatives are not only to reflect the desires of membership, but are also a virtual olive branch to those who have parted with the club. Things could have initially been handled differently. Michaels acknowledges that. But as Third Rail continues to evolve, he hopes these small acts can serve to reunite the thousands across all groups under one song for the club.
“It seems only natural that as the number of supporters grow, the needs for what they want to see in a supporters’ group are going to be different. Neither is it surprising to me nor are we threatened by the existence of said groups,” he explains. “We are trying to walk the fine line between letting it develop organically and trying to give it a bit more guidance to offer a more polished product in the stands.”
Politics is nothing new when it comes to the hardcore fandom inherent in supporters’ culture. Everyone has their own way of going about the business of cheering their club no matter who they are and what team they support.
For the better part of 20 years, the New York Red Bulls’ South Ward has lived with that reality, spawning three separate, distinct supporters’ groups, each with their own ideal of what fandom should look like.
New York City FC is no different. As the team grows, so will the identity of the supporters’ culture. Capos or no capos. Set lists or organic chants. Front office involvement or independence. These vital arguments will undoubtedly shape the fans — and the team — for years to come.
But those differences did not stop each of the three groups from outright condemnation of a very ugly incident. On Saturday, each group found common ground in their disdain for the profane. Despite all their differences, leaders came together to make sure that the ugly aspects of world football do not seep into their ranks.
Between that incident and their love for the club, NYCFC fans may have unwittingly stumbled upon some level of unity. And who knows? Perhaps a moment of horror can bring about a lifetime of peace.
But, as with any supporters’ group, it is going to take a lot of work to get there. And, after all, this is only game two.