15 August 2005

MLS: Martyr League Soccer

I just finished Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization. The book is certainly thought provoking, and one can certainly take issue with the idea that Globalization is reflected throughout soccer. However, one theme that isn't stated on the cover that runs through the book is the idea of victimization. In his chapters on Red Star Belgrade, Celtic/Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur, FC Barca, and even Brazil's professional scene, one common concept is the idea of fan as victim being necessary for identity. Through all of this, Foer doesn't touch on MLS. But I think the idea is true here was well as anywhere.

Fans can take identity from champions (see ManU's international support, or people that wore Bulls jerseys in the early 90s). But fans also bond together tightly if they feel like the world conspires against them, and against their team. It is as if all of the ills that someone has personally felt can be represented in the way their team is constantly thwarted in league play by a conspiracy of officiating, tranfer rules, bullying championship clubs, and most of all, fate (see: Sox, Red).

In the case of MLS, while this applies to a limited extent on team affiliation, it applies much more to the feeling of MLS as a whole. Consider the fact that most of the US soccer blogs are dedicated to the soccer scene in general, and teams are looked at within the context of MLS as an entity. MLS is constantly examined in relation to the rest of the world's soccer scene on these blogs. This is not a bad thing, and certainly a worthy subject. But it is not the only subject.

There are many people who view MLS as a second or third rate world league. There are many theories on how to make MLS better in comparison with the rest of the world: Sign more internationals, impose a system of relegation/promotion, better develop home talent, change to a more traditional soccer season, advertise international matches better, get ESPN to promote MLS better... each of these has been offered at one place or another as a way to make MLS as a whole better. Until then, the american soccer fan persists in the belief that MLS isn't as good as the rest of the world, and is being held back from reaching its true potential. The american soccer fan is a victim of the rest of the world, conspired against by league management and a too-often indifferent mainstream sports media outlook. Too often it feels like fans root for MLS inspite of its talent level and organization. It is a badge of honor for these people: "Look, I root for MLS even though I know the world is better. That makes me authentic as a fan."

I think this is the kind of thing Joe alludes to when he refers to Eurposers. Its as if we have ceded ground, happy to root for a league that will always be second best. After thinking for a bit, I've decided that this worldview, um, well, I've decided it sucks. I root for United not because I am a soccer fan first and a DCU fan second. Rather, I am person with Washington, DC ties. DCU is the local soccer team. I root for them as a resident of the area first, and a soccer fan second.

Maybe this is a luxury of supporting a class organization like United. The Metros don't seem to have much conncection to their city. Ditto Kansas City. It's more like these are places where an MLS team happens to be, divorced from its city itself. Ticket sales reflect that. I'm hoping that Harrison might change that for the Metros. The league deserves some blame for this, with the disastorous NY/NJ name, the idea of "The New England" revolution, the catchy names that didn't reflect a city's heritage (The Clash were from London folks). MLS thought that "Market" and "City" were interchangeable terms, and they paid for it. DCU was always represented well locally: the red stripes that reflected the Washington, DC flag, the rejection of the market names, we got a local team that helped reflect a local personality earlier than everyone else. MLS is now correcting.

The fact is, MLS will not get better as a whole, but rather as the sum of its parts. To put it another way, Kansas City won't get better because MLS as a whole gets better. Rather, MLS will improve becuase Kansas City improves. Not just in talent, but in ability to reach their core fans and bring them out. I think Garber's comments on the "Core fans" being a focus for MLS means they have recognized this.

Bruce Areana, as quoted in an MLS column, stated that he thought the average talent level is MLS is about the same as 10 years ago. But digging deeper, we find that he thinks it stayed level because there's less international talent imported. In other words, domestic talent has improved while there's less international talent bringing the average up. That bodes well, as domestic talent continues to be the focus of team development. The international rules are fairly strict at the moment, so any change will likely mean more international talent, and domestic talent should continue to advance. Each MLS team should become better over the next ten years thanks to domestic players.

Don't root for MLS and your MLS team inspite of its talent level. Root because of it, because your team can get better and win in a league that's getting better all the time.