As ugly as the loss to the rival Red Bulls was, it was much uglier in the stands on Saturday as multiple fights broke out in Sections 131 and 132.
Normally, away support is put in section 133. This is not a problem when playing against say Real Salt Lake, who may have a dozen or so away fans. Putting away support in 133 has its advantages, mainly only needing security stationed on one side, as the other side is a fence overlooking the concourse and egress from the River End. The disadvantages are that the section is small, and there's close enough proximity to the River End that things can be thrown from section to section or from 133 down onto the concourse (Columbus Crew fans in 2010 showered the exiting crowd with debris).
When the New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, or D.C. United come, they are moved to section 132. This allows space for the larger crowds from our closest rivals and prevents them from using the gap between 133 and 134 to throw objects at people. The problem is that it is sandwiched between a section of Union fans who may or may not necessarily want to sit next to away support. It also means that security must now line two aisles instead of one, thinning out the resources on hand to deal with any problems that arise.
And arise the problems did. During halftime, a large fight broke out between sections 131 and 132. I don't know who started it or what, and I'm sure that everyone will blame one another for starting it and take credit for finishing it. What is apparent is that the CSC Security (the stewards in the yellow shirts) were quickly overwhelmed. Red Bull and Union fans were all throwing punches and rushing toward or away from the melee. APEX Security showed up a minute or so later, taking one guy in Union gear and one guy in white (it wasn't clear to me if he was a Red Bull fan or not) out of the stadium.
Things seemed to settle down for a couple of minutes until all hell broke loose in 131, when APEX Security started going at it with Union fans. Again I don't know exactly what happened, but it was clear that the security personnel had lost control. The expectation of trained security personnel is that they are supposed to de-escalate the situation, not exacerbate it.
This photo shows what appears to be an APEX guard elbowing a Union fan in the head, which is consistent with what I recall seeing. Now to be fair, I watched this from Section 136 which is about 40 yards away. It wasn't the greatest vantage point, and it's quite possible that during the chaos that ensued that I misconstrued punches for your run-of-the-mill pushing and shoving.
I reached out to APEX Security about the matter, who forwarded my request to the Union. The Union said that original incident between Sections 131 and 132 occurred due to a "RBNY fan taunting supposedly the girlfriend of a Union supporter. That Union fan apparently got fed up and started the fight along with his brother." It goes on to say that two people were ejected for the initial fight, and goes to clarify "There is no evidence of APEX employees throwing punches/elbows nor did our report indicate any complaint about such an incident. The specific incident that everyone seems to be commenting on is from a still photo. That APEX employee had his wrist grabbed by a fan, and as you can tell from the picture, that employee is then using his other arm to try to free his hand." It goes on to ask that if there's additional evidence to have it brought forth.
This leads to the question "Could something have been done to prevent this sort of incident?" Naturally the first thought is to move the away support, but to where? Putting them in the Chester End would be disastrous, as it's populated with the less-intense fans who probably would not want 300-500 fans from D.C. or New York shouting at them - nor would the people in the Stadium Club which is located behind and above the Chester End. And along those same lines, moving them down the sidelines wouldn't get them any further from the less-intense fans, it just changes which fans are the unfortunate ones who have to deal with the rowdy away support.
I spoke with writers who cover other MLS teams to compare notes about where for instance Seattle Sounders fans are placed when 800-900 of them go to a Portland Timbers match. None of the other stadiums have the same challenges as PPL Park does. Most stadiums have two tiers and don't regularly hit capacity - even for rivalry matches. This means most other stadiums can rope off a section or two on the upper deck for away support, leaving a section or so between the away fans and home fans as a buffer where not much more than insults can be easily hurled. PPL Park has no such luxury. Saturday was a sellout, with the announced attendance at 18,883. There just wasn't any place else to put the Red Bull fans.
Perhaps one day when the planned expansion becomes a reality and there is a second deck at PPL Park, the away fans will have a couple of sections to themselves, far removed from Union fans. Until then, it appears that the security detail will have to keep the peace.