The sight of European soccer fans protesting against their club’s owner has become commonplace, but even so, the scenes at West Ham in east London last weekend were remarkable.
Hundreds of fans gathered below the owner’s box to hurl abuse at owners David Sullivan and David Gold. Several fans ran onto the field, leading to the absurd sight of team captain Mark Noble tackling one of his own team’s fans to the turf. A fan picked up a corner flag and planted it in the center circle. Another fan ran onto the field, back into the stands and immediately got into a fight with a fellow fan.
The problems at West Ham run deep. Two years ago, Gold and Sullivan moved the club out of its historic stadium and into the sterile, cavernous Olympic Stadium. It was supposed to take West Ham into the financial stratosphere at the top of the Premier League. Instead, West Ham, which before the move nearly sneaked its way into the top four of the standings, has since plummeted and now is in real danger of being relegated to the second division.
West Ham is not alone in its current revolt against its owners, with such other clubs as Newcastle and Arsenal in various stages of protesting against ownership as well. Add in ongoing sagas of former Premier League teams run into the ground, as with Charlton Athletic and Blackpool, and it feels like fan animosity is at an all-time high in England. And never mind the rest of Europe, where numerous clubs have equally angry supporters.
We don’t often get this sort of vitriol in American sports, because the leagues are set up to prevent it. It’s hard to sustain that get-out-of-our-club kind of anger when losing means top draft picks, instead of relegation and enduring embarrassment. Repeated failure is spun as laying the groundwork for future success.
The exception is when an owner moves the team across the country, like Norm Green or Art Modell did. That’s where Major League Soccer is starting to catch up to the rest of the soccer world.
Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is the most hated man in the league right now, because of his harebrained scheme to move his team to Austin, Texas. This is potentially the team’s last season in Columbus. You could imagine Crew fans gathering beneath the owner’s box, as West Ham fans did, to chant at Precourt, “You’ve destroyed our club.”
This isn’t the kind of passion that MLS wants to build. The obvious solution is for the league to unequivocally state that the Crew is staying in Columbus, but MLS is currently too caught up in raking in expansion fees to be bothered with the franchise stability of a club that doesn’t make big money. In this case, West Ham-style anger is justified. MLS needs to reverse tack before — as in east London — the situation gets out of hand.
• Former Chicago and current U.S. forward Christen Press is on the verge of leaving the National Women’s Soccer League after she was traded to Houston as part of a three-team blockbuster. Press and Chicago agreed she would move on before 2018, but Press wasn’t willing to accept a deal to Houston — yet the teams pulled the trigger on the trade. It appears Press will look to sign with a team overseas.
• MLS finally has something to crow about in the CONCACAF Champions League. New York and Toronto eliminated Liga MX teams in the quarterfinals, a rare achievement for MLS teams. The semifinals will match New York with Club America and Toronto with Chivas.
• I fear that the Italian title race, once the best thing to watch in Europe, has become a stroll for Juventus. Napoli, for so long the leader, lost at home to Roma and then could only manage a tie away at Inter Milan, while Juve steamrollered ahead with its current 12-game winning streak in the league. By the time Napoli plays again on Sunday afternoon, it could be seven points behind its rivals with just 10 games to play.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
FA Cup: Tottenham at Swansea, 7 a.m. Saturday, FS1. With its Champions League dream over, Tottenham turns its attention to the FA Cup, its only chance of winning any silverware this season. Spurs haven’t won the FA Cup for nearly 30 years, but Swansea is no pushover, especially at home in Wales.
Premier League: Crystal Palace at Huddersfield, 10 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Attention has turned to the crowded relegation battle in the Premier League, with just eight games left to play. Palace, currently in 18th, could haul Huddersfield, which is four points ahead, back into the thick of the battle to stay out of the bottom three.
Turkish Super League: Galatasaray at Fenerbahce, 11 a.m. Saturday, beIN. The Istanbul derby — sometimes called the Intercontinental Derby, as the clubs are on opposite sides of the Bosporus — might be the most bitter rivalry in all of European soccer. The Turkish league isn’t must-watch very often, but this is an exception.
FA Cup: Chelsea at Leicester City, 11:30 a.m. Sunday, FS2. Like Tottenham, Chelsea’s only title chance is the FA Cup. But Leicester City is always dangerous. No matter what, it seems more and more likely that Chelsea coach Antonio Conte will depart before next year, and he’d dearly love to leave with a trophy.