By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

This is a developing story and may be updated as more information becomes available.

Sunday, October 10: Playing host to Colorado Rapids on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the only MLS match of the day, both Minnesota United FC and the club’s Supporters hoped to make a statement. For the club, that statement would be that the squad is good enough and deep enough to contend into the postseason. For the Supporters it was that their presence comes at a cost during a global pandemic and should be protected.

Despite a solid start and a man advantage, MNUFC fell far short on the pitch, conceding three unanswered goals in the second half to fall 3-1. As for the Supporters, their requests were left on read.

When the MN Dark Clouds, the largest of MNUFC’s three sanctioned SGs, announced ahead of the September 18 home match against LA Galaxy that they would have no capos leading the section due to safety concerns, their fellow SGs chose to follow their lead for the night, leaving other fans in the stadium (at least those who weren’t plugged in to Supporters Twitter) confused for a bit, but otherwise nonplussed. After all, the Loons claimed a 3 goal shutout and capos aren’t vital to the singing of Wonderwall.

One week after the Galaxy match, the group continued its capo standdown as the Loons hosted Houston, but members of True North Elite returned to the stand, the Thunderwall’s drums came back to life, and the contentious fandom fires were stoked once again over another shutout win in an awkward atmosphere. This weekend’s 3-1 loss to Colorado, in a stadium full of empty seats despite its ‘sold-out’ status, did little to buoy the atmosphere, or relations between the club’s front office and the supporters they are so quick to tout. Twitter was full of anecdotal evidence of many conflicting feelings gathered within Allianz Field, from “It’s pretty full where I’m standing” to “This is awkward with zero leadership” (to paraphrase but two).

With so many feeling slighted by the lack of the Wonderwall’s raucous energy for the better part of a month, and others confused by what they see as hypocritical behavior from the protesting SGs, it’s imperative to look beyond Twitter for an explanation.

Where did all the capos go?

The Dark Clouds’ first statement came after a meeting between representatives of the three sanctioned supporters groups (Dark Clouds, True North Elite, and Red Loons) and representatives of the club’s front office and executive board. Not much of what was said in that meeting has been released publicly, but the SGs have explained across social media that they requested that the club institute enhanced Covid-19 protocols, namely an entry requirement of proof of vaccination or a negative test within the last 72 hours. (This requirement is common at indoor venues throughout the Twin Cities and, at the time of this writing, was in place at no fewer than seven other MLS stadiums. Although, yes, five of those are due to city/state ordinance.)

The club declined to do so, citing the potential of lost revenue, using the Portland Timbers’ requirement as an example, though no one has been able to produce more than anecdotal evidence that this was the case. The FO also feared “alienating” fans and attendees who are anti-vaccine or anti-proof of vaccine. Further, a source told Switch the Pitch that a member of the executive board went so far as to suggest that such a requirement may not have any impact on the spread of the virus anyway and that masks were a superior strategy. So how about a compromise – a mask mandate? Also no.

Since going back to full-capacity, the club has only recommended that attendees wear masks, or strongly encouraged them in enclosed or indoor areas, like the concourse and restrooms, and in its only public response to the protest, the club tweeted out a reminder, seemingly in response to the Dark Clouds’ first tweet, that they “strongly encourage” masks at all times.

And so the Dark Clouds and Red Loons capos chose to watch the Galaxy match from the Wonderwall rails rather than lead the chants and songs of a maybe vaxed and sometimes masked crowd. And, after crickets from the FO, the capo stands remained empty against Houston. More crickets led Dark Clouds and Red Loons leadership to release a joint statement on Monday going beyond empty capo stands. The statement – which you can read in its entirety here – read, in part:

We love supporting our Loons, and remember clearly how much we missed bringing that support in person. But we can’t ignore the growing COVID cases in our area, and it’s long past time for MNUFC to prioritize the health and safety of its workers, its dedicated volunteers, and its supporters.

Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?

The statement included a link to the Minnesota Department of Health’s live Covid response page to support the request for stricter measures. The data on that page shows a steep, steady rise in cases reported and in positive test percentage. Minnesotans left home to celebrate summer and a positivity rate of around 1 percent in July, and flocked to Allianz Field to support the Loons in what felt like a pandemic victory. However by mid-September, the positivity rate had risen to 7.6 percent and it continues to rise. A positivity rate of 10 percent is when alarm bells ring. Switch the Pitch does not have a resident virologist, but we’ll call 7.6 deserving of a yellow card. The Dark Clouds and Red Loons don’t want to see that turn into a red so in addition to not providing capos, the groups asked that members who don’t feel comfortable going to a match, out of concern for their own or someone else’s health, not sell their tickets to others and instead leave their seats empty. They also requested that everyone contact their ticket representative to – respectfully – share their concerns.

Twitter and local media ran off on various interpretations, leading the Dark Clouds (the Red Loons did not join in on this one) to tweet out a clarification on Wednesday.

The update was met with strong feelings, with some calling it a step backwards. Switch the Pitch reached out to Dark Clouds leadership regarding a) background on the update and b) a response to the cries of hypocrisy by observers who noted that some capos were still in attendance and DCs were still taking part in other events. A response from anonymous member(s) of the executive board shed light on both points.

Regarding the first match, versus LA Galaxy, leadership stated that, “rather than push the few volunteers who were able to capo, the board discuss[ed] the situation and elected to pause matchday activities until additional safety measures were put in place or the covid situation improved.

“The response that we received to this was overwhelmingly positive and in listening to the feedback of our members we realized that not just our volunteers were uncomfortable with the current situation but so were many of our members. At this time we felt stronger messaging was needed,” leading to the joint statement with Red Loons on Monday, October 4. “Unfortunately, many social media and news outlets misinterpreted our message on Monday. We felt clarification was needed [the update was released Wednesday], as our intent as Dark Clouds was not to call for a full boycott of the game but to support our members who felt that they were no longer able to attend.”

As to why the group continues to host service events and advertise travel to stadiums with the same lack of measures as Allianz Field, they explained that, “Ultimately we understand that everyone’s risk tolerance during this pandemic is different. Silver Lining [the Dark Clouds’ charitable arm] has a set of protocols that need to be met in order for volunteer events to move forward, these are spelled out in the event sign up so that members can choose whether or not to attend based on the potential risk. As for travel, this is run through the Wonderwall. Individual members of Dark Clouds who choose to travel don’t necessarily reflect the position of the board as a whole.”

(It bears mentioning that attending a match at a 19,000-plus capacity stadium and volunteering at an event are two different risk profiles for some and may be weighed or valued very differently, depending on an individual’s circumstances.)

Red Loons continues to urge its members and others not to show up at Allianz and instead attend watch parties at establishments that do have protocols in place or to support from home.

True North Elite has returned to normal matchday operations albeit with a thinner crowd, illustrated in a video from Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press. While TNE has not responded to a request for comment at the time of this writing, one unsanctioned SG has been more vocal on the issue, with different tactics.

Drink-90-Drink at safer establishments.

The Bucket Hat Brigade, a vocal anti-racist group with a penchant for timeless headwear, is leading a financial boycott at Allianz Field.

The Red Loons employed this tactic in 2019 to fight for a lifting of the ban on ‘political’ speech on fanwear and signs. The Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters are currently protesting Thorns’ leadership by the same means. Why? Money talks. The Brigade’s leadership explained:

“While we support and appreciate the other supporters groups’ efforts to boycott in their own ways to force the FO of MNUFC to enact these policies, we feel that simply not using season tickets that have already been purchased and monies paid to the club does not send a strong enough message[…] By asking our members, as well as all other supporters groups and fans at the stadium to join us in a financial boycott at Allianz Field (no food, no beverages, no merchandise purchases) for any event at the stadium, we feel that this is the most effective way to show the team that a failure to enact these policies will hurt their bottom line much more than the very small minority of fans that they think will not attend by enacting these policies.”

When STP asked for the thoughts of Minnesota supporters about the All Star game coming to St Paul (that portion of the question will be revisited in another story) and about the protests, the respondents (five) were all supportive of a mandate, though their own involvement in the protests varied. One alluded to a factor which was mentioned in the Dark Clouds’ updated statement.

The respondent said, “I run a company and understand that these requirements and decisions are not always as clear as they may appear.” Stadium staffing and other considerations need to be made prior to enacting such a policy and taking the time to do so is not an excuse or a step backward, but just a part of doing business during a uncertain time. With all of that said, messaging and tone matters.

Loons prefer fish to crickets.

While the Dark Clouds ungather, while the Red Loons occupy venues that do have vaccination/negative test requirements, while the Bucket Hat Brigade keeps their wallets closed… The club stays quiet. Two requests for comment from this outlet have unanswered (including one which asked simply if the club intended to make any statement or public acknowledgement of the protest) and the mainstream outlets have fared no better. Even as the club hosted MSP and national media at Allianz Field on Tuesday for the announcement that the 2022 MLS All Star Game will be played in St Paul.

The All Star speeches, with their many references to the supporter culture that built this franchise, are a whole other story. But how MNUFC’s front office addresses the change in matchday atmosphere in light of Commissioner Don Garber’s assurances that the event was “earned,” not given, by the club’s supporter community is an angle worth following across the three remaining home games on the Loons’ regular season schedule.

Stay tuned…

Featured image: MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Twitter: @SwitchThePitch1 and Instagram: @SwitchThePitch1