There is a scene in an otherwise exceptional documentary, The History of Football, that discusses the formation of Major League Soccer following the 1994 World Cup. A smug Clive Toye pops up to tell us how MLS "may never be as successful as the NASL, because they didn't have the money we had," but in the very next sentence bemoans MLS's "tremendous advantage" wrought from a generation of kids grew up watching the North American Soccer League. After which the narrator, Terence Stamp, tells us that soccer has "survived" in North America because of the ability of the sport to "adapt" to American tastes.
There in a nutshell is the conventional portrait of MLS, NASL's scared little progeny born out of fear and pragmatism, alone in a harsh and unforgiving land yet charged with carrying an impossible legacy. For many both here and abroad MLS will always be the conflicted hybrid child of two polarized sporting ideologies, yet the "only hope" for preserving the future of American club soccer.
Everything about the league has been tailored, as far as I can make out, to fit this story line. Major League Soccer has enforced a top-down, centralized administrative structure, with stringent controls on everything from player acquisitions to franchise expansion, presumably in part to prevent the cataclysmic imbalance between supply (too many clubs) and demand (too few fans) that destroyed NASL. Perhaps, like Karl Marx once happily told us, an iron-fisted dictatorship of the proletariat is only a "short transition period" to an era of greater freedom. Well, for some the Leninist phase is over, the White Army gone for good, and the time for freedom is at hand. To borrow a phrase from a fellow Canadian football writer, perhaps it's time for MLS to "shit or get off the pot."
I'm not quite sure where I stand to be honest. Perhaps MLS is at a crossroads and needs to free things up now to allow the league to expand and compete lest it sit there and stagnate, or maybe a sustained, cautious Burkean approach to expansion is the only way to prevent a 1984-style apocalypse.
My guess is that your own view on the matter probably depends on what you think MLS is exactly. I mean we know literally what it is, it's right there on Wikipedia:
Major League Soccer (MLS) is a professional soccer league based in the United States and sanctioned by United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer). The league comprises 15 teams, 14 in the U.S. and one in Canada. MLS represents the top tier of the American and Canadian soccer pyramids. Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the United States' bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The first season took place in 1996 beginning with 10 teams. Seasons run from late March or early April to November, with teams playing 30 regular season games each. Eight teams compete in the postseason MLS Cup Playoffs culminating in the championship game, MLS Cup.
But what is it? Potentially huge or comfortably small? A unique North American exception or a gateway to the Global Game? NASL's tarnished legacy or NA's future Premier League? Over the next couple of weeks, A More Splendid Life is going to piece together some of the answers to these questions to try and better understand where the league might be headed. It will be a discussion devoid of the structural issues of the sort you can better read just about anywhere else on the internet. Rather, it will provide a series of vignettes, sign posts, and stories all centered on personal experiences of those involved in one way or another in MLS, how we collectively see the league, where we'd like to go, what we'd like to see changed.
And in the interest of preventing this discussion from getting too Toronto-centric, I need your help.
I would love it if you could send me (amoresplendidlife[at]gmail.com or in the comments section below) a unique story or experience with your time in Major League Soccer, even if it's only a few sentences, or even one sentence. It could anything, a chance meeting with an old friend at the ground, the experience of your first live home game, when your travel bus broke down, the first time you ever heard there even was an American professional soccer league. You don't have to live in a city with an MLS club; hell, you don't even have to be North American: as the Premier League has demonstrated, countries no longer culturally "own" their leagues, so it's not a closed shop. I will try to include everything I receive, and I'll obviously credit you for it unless you specify otherwise. And if you're a writer, feel free to link this post for others to join in.
I don't expect this to yield any concrete answers; the idea is to unearth something of the league's hidden legacy over the past thirteen years, how MLS has become ingrained in American sporting culture outside of the endless technical debates that dominate the journalistic spectra, all with the hope it might give us some idea of where the league could be headed. Tomorrow, I'll get the ball rolling with my own MLS story.
And I look forward to hearing from you!
Saturday EDIT: I should note that by "tomorrow" I meant Monday, so please don't think I've plum dropped it because the response thus far has been phenomenal. This looks to be a really cool conversation...