Cue up the Crew

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

The Columbus Crew is coming to Toronto.

Quick, someone hide the women and children.

The Crew and Toronto FC bring out the beast in each other -- and that's just in the stands.

If this were the western frontier of the 1800s, Saturday's meeting would be the equivalent of the Clanton boys riding into Tombstone to party with the Earps.

We're talkin' Hatfields and McCoys, cats in the doghouse, and George Bush at the bin Laden family picnic. Not great mixers.

The league may have only itself to blame. When Toronto joined the MLS in 2007, it set up the Trillium Cup, a three-game series in hopes of fostering a rivalry with Columbus. It has worked, perhaps, a bit too well.

The proximity of the cities has led to the largest travelling contingent of fans in league history, a stronger fan club in Columbus, and a healthy war of words. It has also escalated into some unhealthy physical altercations.

Last year, a Crew supporter and a TFC fan scuffled over a team scarf. As well, already upset about midfielder Robbie Roberts being hit by a cup of beer during a game, Crew fans traded insults and punches with TFC fans outside BMO Field.

In this season's opener, almost 1,600 Toronto supporters travelled to Columbus. There were political taunts; damage to the stadium.

After the game, five got arrested, one got tasered and the post-game fights were featured on You-Tube.

Much of the flak, perhaps unfairly, has been directed at the 500-strong Red Patch Boys, and other smaller official fan clubs.

"The stuff that happens in Europe is a totally different sociological issue,'' Red Patch club president Jack DePoe said.

"Those hooligan groups are roughly equivalent to our street gangs in North America. Here, they form around where you live. There, they form around political alliances and sports teams. We have a rivalry with ... Columbus."

They are loud, they are proud, they may even be rude, said DePoe, but they aren't hooligans.

Last week, a club member, Corporal Greg Yeoman, Third Battalion Royal Canadians, was honoured by the team for his duty in Afghanistan. Not exactly criminal types.

They do not condone players being given beer baths and, says DePoe, fighting or throwing objects -- other than the traditional paper streamers -- is grounds for having membership forfeited.

"We understand why (we get blamed). We don't accept that we do," DePoe said.

Visible and vocal, the clubs are easy targets. There is room to be misunderstood.

"We are very exuberant,'' DePoe said. "No question. People who aren't part of our group; maybe they don't get it and see the opportunity to get crazy.

"But we have a purpose. It's not for the sake of acting like jerks. It's to get behind the team and give them energy ... that 12th man status is something we're very proud of."

The people involved in altercations in Columbus weren't Red Patch Boys, nor were the two youths arrested last week for throwing flares.

"We can keep our own people under control, but a lot of people went (to Columbus) on their own.

"If there's someone you don't know and you walk up and say: 'Hey, buddy, don't throw that beer.' And he's drunk, what are the odds he'll listen? It's a tough situation for us. We know the consequences of throwing stuff and violence and we don't want a part of it."

The Red Patch Boys will gather Saturday at BMO Field and, communication officer Paul Lewicki said: "If (Columbus fans) show up at our tailgate, we'd welcome them.

"We don't really have anything against Columbus ... their ugly yellow uniforms might be the only thing we don't like."

Them's fightin' words.

But only, remember, in the nicest possible way.


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