- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2018

Most of the 20,000 on hand to open Audi Field on Saturday were fans of D.C. United. But “united” hardly describes the members of the club’s three supporters’ groups.

Supporters’ groups — diehard fan associations found in soccer culture worldwide — are usually on the same page when it comes to rooting for the local team. But in Washington, two groups are at odds with a third, and with the club itself.

A new partnership between D.C. United and one of the groups, the Screaming Eagles, has left the other two — La Barra Brava and District Ultras — claiming they were not offered the same terms to buy tickets for Audi Field’s supporters’ stand.

Soccer fans looked forward to the opening of Audi Field for years. But hundreds boycotted when the new soccer-specific facility opened Saturday, and they say they will continue to stay away until they feel there is a solution — which, after five months, might be on the horizon.

“From just a moral perspective, a lot of the supporters are very, very angry at the front office and the Screaming Eagles and don’t want to buy tickets from them, don’t want to participate with them,” said Jay Igiel, a Barra Brava elder. “They really kind of destroyed the supporters culture in D.C. by taking this monopoly and claiming that they’re this sole group that’s in charge of everything.”

In February, United announced a deal giving the Screaming Eagles exclusive rights to sell single-game tickets in sections 136 and 137, where the members of the supporters’ groups traditionally stand.

“Instead of having (the ticketing department) talk to these different groups, instead of having operations talk to these different groups, instead of all that, it’s just: ‘OK, Screaming Eagles, you’re in charge, and all the tickets go through you,’” said Carrick Baugh, a District Ultras member who has taken a leadership role there. “It’s like, ‘We get our money, you handle the problems, partnership done.’”

United CEO Jason Levien reached out to the Ultras this week and met with Barra Brava on Tuesday — one day after Levien said on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” that he wants to meet with the groups and “rectify” the situation.

Igiel said he felt “very cautiously optimistic” after the meeting.

More than 300 fans joined the “Supporters’ March,” a demonstration before Saturday’s match that simultaneously cheered the team and protested its front office. Marchers chanted “We want tickets” and carried signs with messages such as “No supporters and it’s just another empty building.”

Not all of the protesters participated in the boycott — some, including organizers like Igiel, attended the match with their season tickets.

The supporters’ stand was mostly full for the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, but critics claimed online that the crowd lacked the volume and cohesiveness that was part of the experience at United’s old RFK Stadium stomping grounds.

The best United coach Ben Olsen could say was that the atmosphere and noise “got there” after a while.

“It took a couple goals to get that building rocking,” Olsen said.

The clash between supporters’ groups was perhaps inevitable for organizations known throughout soccer for competitiveness, drinking and nonstop chanting and singing.

For supporters, following a team is about more than just buying season tickets. Supporters are expected to stick through thick and thin and attend every match, whether the team is playing terribly, it’s a weekday night or it’s pouring rain.

Each group has its own identity. For instance, Barra Brava draws on South American roots, particularly its founder’s native Bolivia. Some of their chants and songs are in Spanish. Like many groups, they organize tifo — massive, collaborative visual displays — in the stands.

The stakes are high for these supporters because, for many, it’s the hobby they’re most passionate about. Soccer games are “like the only weird place in the city where plumbers and diplomats hang out and are friends,” Baugh said.

One former United executive told the Washington Post the club did not want to see supporters’ groups turning ticket resales into a profit-making venture.

The Eagles and Ultras are registered nonprofits, Barra Brava is not.

Barra Brava’s Igiel, who works as an attorney in Alexandria, dismissed as “ridiculous” accusations he has personally profited from ticket resales.

“I get yelled at by my girlfriend all the time (about this). I’ve spent thousands of dollars on the Barra Brava on beer, tailgates, tailgate supplies, food, anything that you can imagine,” Igiel said. “Money out of my own pocket.”

Saturday’s protest was not a one-off publicity stunt, Igiel said. Many supporters remain angry — as evidenced by the United fans that Barra Brava’s Twitter account retweets every day.

Amid the controversy, even some Screaming Eagles chose not to renew their memberships, said Eagles president James Lambert. Lambert said he thinks it’s because United is a business and its supporters’ groups are not.

“We have different goals in mind and therefore, we’ll approach the team to try to moderate what they’re doing and make it work for the way people come in and support,” Lambert said. “But I think it’s different from the team. It’s like, no, I don’t really expect (United) to say, ‘Well, how can we accommodate all of these people in the way they want to be accommodated?’”

One solution Barra and Ultras favor would be to install an independent supporters’ council, made up of representatives from the three groups, to manage tickets sales for the stand. The Eagles have told Barra they would not agree to that now that they have the United partnership, Igiel said.

Despite the boycott, supporters have no trouble separating the front office from the players and coaches, and they haven’t stopped rooting for United when they take the field. Barra Brava has partnered with the bar Finn McCool’s for United watch parties this season, which is where most of its members went after the march Saturday.

United’s next match at Audi Field is Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls, a bitter rival. The rivalry between United’s factions of fans still might be the bigger news that day — unless a new ticketing solution is put in place before then.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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