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ECS pushes back against being used as "marketing tool"

ECS voice frustrations over what they feel is a relationship being taken for granted.

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It started with a somewhat vague email, urging fans to show up to the original Emerald City Supporters bar. For what? It wasn't entirely clear. But ECS leadership was definitely upset about something and they wanted everyone to know.

Simply curious or genuinely fired up, by 5:30 p.m. several hundred people had showed up to Fuel ahead of Saturday's match against Sporting Kansas City. So many people were there, in fact, that most of them were forced to mill about outside. Rumors had started circulating about the exact reason for the call-to-arms, but everyone by now knew that it had something to do with the Sounders front office.

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Like any healthy relationship, the one between a club and its supporters has a constant underlying tension. A strong supporters' group will push the boundaries of what is acceptable, often seeking expanded seating, room to store their tifo, and even stadium infrastructure improvements, in addition to various kinds of other activities. A club will often want to encourage just enough rowdiness among their supporters as to not cross any lines — ensuring they steer clear of legal issues and that nothing hurts their "brand."

There is often a push-and-pull, as the two sides rarely get exactly what they want. But when handled properly, it works. The supporters provide a wonderful atmosphere, the club creates something supporters are proud to be excited over.

But like any relationship, there's also a tendency to take some things for granted. We may have reached that point between the Sounders front office and their largest supporters' group, ECS.

Sounders vs. Sporting KC: Photos

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

Finally, someone was on the bullhorn. An impassioned speech followed, outlining a series of ECS complaints. Taken individually, none seemed particularly egregious. But added up ECS clearly felt as though they were being used as little more than a marketing prop for the Sounders and MLS, even using the phrase "We aren't your puppets." Beyond that, there was an underlying message that ECS didn't feel supported by the club they support.

One specific area of complaint had to do with the way camera operators were going about their business. In New York and Vancouver, in particular, they had apparently embedded themselves inside the supporters section with little regard to the people they were there to shoot.

This manifested itself with one supporter being shown on air flipping off the camera and shooing the camera operator away. That apparently led to the supporter having his season tickets suspended until he completed a class, for which he would also have to pay to take.

The incident that seemed to best explain ECS's frustration came prior to the Vancouver match. MLS cameras had requested a spot on one of the ECS buses in order to get footage for an upcoming episode of "Off Topic." ECS denied the request, understandably I might even say. These are their buses, after all, and if they don't want cameras filming what goes on, that seems perfectly reasonable. Apparently, someone in the Sounders front office disagreed, and made sure ECS knew about their disappointment. The insinuation here being that the Sounders expected ECS to not only put on a show explicitly for the cameras but to be happy about it.

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It's easy to take for granted someone with whom you are comfortable. You know their love is constant, that no matter what you do, the damage can be repaired. That's why we allow work to get in the way of our personal relationships. That's why we might choose to hang out with our friends, rather than loved ones. Weirdly, the stronger the relationship, the easier it is to take for granted.

The Sounders know ECS loves them. Well, they love the club. They love the coaches. They love the players. They want to support. They want to sing. They want to wave flags. They want to design and build massive tifos. They do it all because they believe it helps their team succeed. They do it all for free. They do it even when they are upset with the team.

Sounders vs. Sporting KC: Photos

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

Anyone inside the stadium on Saturday probably wouldn't have known the difference. Yes, ECS flipped off cameras en masse early in the match. But they were singing, cheering and waving flags just like they always do.

Outside, prior to the match, it was a slightly different scene.

Following the speech, ECS took to the streets. Covered in clouds of green and blue smoke, ECS followed a slightly different path on their March to the Match. They left Fuel about five minutes ahead of schedule, went through an alley alongside Occidental Park and cut ahead of the club-sanctioned festivities.

Main Street had not yet been closed when they walked through it. Neither had Occidental Avenue. A handful of cars were engulfed by the mass of people. The curious occupants snapped pictures and filmed video. There were a lot of middle-finger salutes being shown to cameras, but otherwise it was a mostly peaceful display, with the notable exceptions of it technically being unpermitted and ignoring the fire marshall's previous ban on the use of smoke in the streets. There were no reported injuries nor serious property damage.

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The Sounders definitely noticed. Whether or not everyone in the organization agreed that they've taken ECS's support for granted, there are definitely some sympathetic ears.

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer, for one, said he was seeking out a meeting with ECS. He had previously told them that as long as they didn't do anything illegal and didn't do anything to harm the Sounders brand that he was fully supportive of their actions. He told me nothing has changed in that regard, but that he was also looking for reassurance that the club and ECS were still pushing in the same direction.

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Gathering supporters outside of Fuel was no accident. Prior to the days of the Sounders joining MLS, back when ECS was a relatively small group of dedicated fans, this is where they started their own march. There were no loudspeakers, no marching band and the front office was barely even aware of their activities. But they were there.

The March to the Match has now grown into something entirely different. Even on slow days, hundreds of people assemble in Occidental Park. For big rivalry matches, the march is thousands strong and stretches back several city blocks. In the world of North American soccer, it's a spectacle quite unlike any other.

It's an inclusive event, too, welcoming to the hardcore fans, families and curious onlookers. But it's also grown far beyond anything ECS could have possibly envisioned, to the point that it doesn't even feel like an ECS event despite their position leading it.

Part of Saturday's gathering was meant to be internally focused as well. Every big group needs to rally their base from time to time, and that seems to have been at least part of why ECS leadership issued this call-to-arms. Reasserting their claim on the march was part of that.

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ECS leadership understands that having a large, inclusive group is a positive. They want everyone to feel welcome at the march. But they also don't want to lose their identity in the process. They want to be inclusive without becoming a tourist attraction. It's a fine line to walk.

The club wants to foster a vibrant supporters' culture. They want the energy. They want the organic marketing that comes along with it. But they also don't want to give up too much control. It, too, is a fine line.

The good news is that Hanauer and every ECS leader I talked to all seemed to be in agreement: the club and the supporters best operate as a symbiotic organism. They may not always agree on every decision and they may even disagree on some significant ones. But they all want the same thing: For the club to be as successful as possible.

This is not a broken relationship, at least not yet. There are adults on both sides willing to compromise. ECS will be back leading the march from Occidental Park for tonight's game against the Colorado Rapids. Fences appear to be at least being mended, if not entirely fixed. The relationship between the Sounders and their supporters is a work in progress, as it will likely always be. The greater Sounders community can be proud of that.

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