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Storming The Fort

Fans feel they’ve been unfair targets of Revolution

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - There is no place in the Boston-area sports scene quite like The Fort at Gillette Stadium. On Revolution game days, Sections 141, 142, and 143, behind the north goal, are transformed into a high-energy, continuously chanting and singing area, basically a mini-version of soccer stadia in other countries. The most committed and passionate supporters populate The Fort, loudly backing the team through thick and thin.

But those very supporters have been in conflict with team management since the second half of a June 18 match, when stadium security removed four people from The Fort. Foxborough police and TeamOps security personnel were called in because of complaints about a chant that includes an obscenity. Management claims fans had been instructed to halt the chant. Supporters’ groups say some of their members, plus nonmembers in The Fort, did not receive the warning.

This was not the first time fans in The Fort had been ejected from the stadium. But this incident sparked a strong enough backlash for a meeting to be called with season ticket-holders and Revolution chief operating officer Brian Bilello, director of marketing Cathal Conlon, MLS senior director of operations Evan Dabby, Sgt. Allan Haskell of the Foxborough Police Department, and TeamOps director of operations Kelly Way.

During the two-hour session, supporters’ groups agreed to try to squelch the chant. But no immediate solutions were proposed. And, judging by posts on the team’s blog, many supporters believe the situation has not been resolved.

There are about 2,000 regulars in The Fort, half belonging to supporters’ groups. The Midnight Riders were the first of these groups, established late in 1995, while the Revolution were being formed. The originators hoped to promote positive elements of fan support, basing their organization on British models. They published a fanzine, “Pictures of Chairman Mao,’’ inspired by a lyric from The Beatles’ “Revolution.’’ They stood and shouted, and brought banners, drums, flags, scarves, and streamers to games.

The Riders had disagreements with management from the start. Everything they wanted to do seemed to be against stadium policy. There have been run-ins with security over banners, drums, flags, streamers, and members standing instead of sitting during games.

By 2001, the Riders had been reduced to 40 members. The team was struggling, and there wasn’t much to cheer about as the Revolution played their final game at Foxboro Stadium. By 2002, Taylor Twellman arrived and the Revolution played before a crowd of 61,316 in the MLS Cup final at Gillette.

The Revolution had a new home and the Riders were being revived. A couple of years later, streamers were allowed to be launched. Veterans of The Fort still recall satisfaction as the streamers wrapped themselves around New York goalkeeper Jon Conway. In the last three seasons, flags have been allowed into The Fort, and a capo stand has been erected, a group leader using a megaphone to lead chants and songs.

Almost all of the issues the Riders had with management seemed to be ironed out. The supporters were even allocated a parking lot.

Then came the June 18 game against the Chicago Fire. After halftime, Monty Rodrigues took his place in the capo stand. Each goal kick by Chicago’s Sean Johnson was accompanied by, “You suck [expletive],’’ the chant management hoped to halt. Rodrigues and the leaders of the three supporters’ groups - The Midnight Riders, The Rebellion, and Revs Army - attempted to discourage the chant. Conlon, who is also the Revolution’s liaison for supporters’ groups, was called in.

But the tension seemed to escalate. Conlon left in frustration. Rodrigues abandoned the capo stand. One person was arrested and three taken into protective custody. Dozens of supporters walked out in protest and the decibel level of The Fort decreased noticeably.

“I don’t swear,’’ Rodrigues said. “When that chant came up I pulled the megaphone off. I got on the megaphone and said, ‘Can you please stop swearing,’ and people kept swearing and booing and shouting the F-word over and over again. I turned around to Cathal and said, ‘What can I do?’ And I walked away.

“You cannot get people to stop a chant in two games, it’s something they have been doing for years. There are new people in there, they haven’t been there before, and it takes time.’’

Bilello said warnings against the chant had been issued at the start of the season. Rodrigues said the supporters’ groups did not send out the PDF file regarding the chant until the afternoon of a May 29 game.

“It is an oversimplification saying the chant is the problem,’’ Rodrigues said. “Most of us are OK with getting rid of it. There are 60-word chants with swearing, but you don’t hear it. A three-word chant, you hear it. But until the section is filled only with supporters, we have no control over it. Young guys get put into The Fort and they hear one, and they do it. We can’t control those people and it’s not our job.

“But our problem is not with that. It’s how security handled it.’’

Old wounds were reopened. Festering resentments exploded. The supporters’ groups, the most loyal and passionate, and also misunderstood, of Revolution fans, were being targeted again. It was like the early days when the Riders were regarded as a stereotypical intoxicated Patriots fan of another era or communists because of the title of their fanzine.

These days, there are organized supporters’ groups in most MLS cities and word travels fast on social media networks. The Sons of Ben maintained a period of silence during the next Philadelphia Union game in solidarity with the Revolution supporters. PPL Park became much quieter, as most MLS stadiums would without the supporters’ groups involvement.

What has become known as the “YSA’’ chant began several years ago. It started as a “YS’’ chant, the last word added recently. It is repeated at many collegiate and MLS stadiums and a Spanish version was heard loud and clear at the US-Mexico Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl June 25.

MLS administrators are hoping fans either drop the chant or alter it.

“Maybe you should say, ‘Your socks have holes,’ ’’ suggested Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis. “There’s a lot of ways to get around it instead of ramming your head against a brick wall and trying to change their procedures. Skirt the rules, find a loophole.’’

Dabby, of the MLS, compares the situation to a problem teams were having with fans launching so many streamers that play was being interrupted.

“We certainly don’t condone obscenity, it’s against the code of conduct, but we encourage passions,’’ he said. “I liken this to the streamer issue. That became part of the experience, fans became attached to it, but we realized there was some detriment to it and worked with supporters and it is essentially a nonissue now. It will take time, but supporters’ leadership recognizes this is not critical to the experience. They recognize the game experience is not about shouting obscenities.’’

Because of the seamless nature of soccer, there are few breaks in the action, and electronic prompting of spectators is not a part of the game presentation.

“We’re the atmosphere,’’ Rodrigues said. “We have diehards of other teams come to The Fort and they think it’s awesome. It is a completely different atmosphere from other sports. You don’t get to do this in other sports. At Fenway, the only organized chant is ‘Let’s go Red Sox’ and at Patriots games it’s ‘De-fense.’ You don’t get to come up with fun chants about Tony Meola. It’s like we say, come for the game, stay for the atmosphere.

“But in 11 years I was president [of the Riders] I don’t remember a fight in our section, at least with our members. There have been bottles thrown during games, golf balls, but when they were caught they have not been members of supporters’ groups. We’ve been honest with [management] and none of these have ever been our members, but the blame is always on us.’’

The Revolution’s next home game is an exhibition against Manchester United July 13. This will not be a normal night for The Fort, because the match was not included in the season-ticket package, and some regulars might not be there. But Manchester United will bring its own following, which is not shy about colorful language or imbibing. For one night, The Fort might not be the liveliest place in the stadium.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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