Friday, September 25, 2009

Major League Soccer at the Crossroads?

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.[1] 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] 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...



Nils said...

Soccer does depend on a free market...premiership, division one, division two exists in all countries, except N America.No social safety net, which adds to the whole experience, threat of rlegation......seems very obvious..make United Soccer leagues division one...with MLS the top one has to invest a dime..except maybe staium upgrades..

vik said...

relegation is a non issue for the mls
after spending 40 million to get a team and maybe another 30 for a stadium you think a team like philly would accept one year in mls and then go to usl.

You think that for tv purposes that rochester is better than philly.

it would be better to get 2 dp/team that dont count towards the salary cap (which should be raised)

jack said...

the free market concept for the sport is great when the sport is #1.
For example, it would be great to have promotion/relegation in NHL hockey in Canada.
If St. John's Newfoundland made it to the top league in the NHL, they'd be a hit. And if they were relegated, they'd still be a hit.

But this is "soccer" in NA and the average person doesn't give a crap about relegation. They'll just stop watching when their side gets sent down, cuz it's no longer "major league".

Hough said...

In 1996 I was in high school and visiting a friends brother with my friend in Dallas. We talked him into taking us to a Burn game, They were playing whoever Valeroma (sp?, guy with giant blonde fro) played for. I wasn't sure what to expect having only been to NFL, NBA and MLB games before. The game became pretty intense and we were sitting with many latinos. At one point Valderoma came near the sideline in the cottonbowl to make a throw in and one of the guys around us threw his coke at him, many more people did the same thing and before I knew it I threw my coke at him. I knew then that soccer was very differnt from the other sports I had been to. I must say I've never done it before, but that one game made me a life time FC Dallas fan even as I live in Kansas City and they are pathetic today.

Duane Rollins said... /watch?v=L0h5ZjGY-k8

^ That game hooked me. I was writing for a B.C. magazine called World Football Pages doing a bi-weekly Canadians abroad thing. We considered MLS to be abroad, so I was tracking DeRo at San Jose. Somehow, through that, I became a fan of the 'Quakes and I tried to follow the team as best I could (mostly by following BigSoccer threads on game day). The MLS Cup offered a rare opportunity to actually watch them play.

So when DeRo, a CANADIAN!, scored the golden goal...yeah, that was great. At the time I never dreamed that six years later I'd be walking into a stadium in Toronto with 19,999 other people wearing red scarves.

The scarves. The image of everyone wearing the scarves on opening day will be with me forever. It was incredible to see that there really were that many people out there that cared about Toronto having a team in MLS. I had heard that it would be sold out, but I didn't actually believe that it would until I saw it.

And the stomping...I can still hear a wall of noise from sections 112 and 113. It sounded like they were going to break through the stands when you stood in the concourse. In Toronto!

Singing. Alllll we are give us a goal! Oh my God, you can't imagine how incredible that felt. This is really going to work, isn't it!

Finally I'm walking home after the game. I'm walking past a hair salon when an older man literally starts chasing me. He's seen my scarf. "Did they score?" he asks with his British accent. "No," I say sadly. He's legitimately upset. "Next week," he says smiling. "We'll get 'em next week."

We'll. A British ex-pat in Toronto just called a domestic soccer team "we."

It was then that I really knew it was only going to get better.

Richard Whittall said...

These are so great, thanks so much...just a quick note to say the series will be picking up again on Monday, so please keep sending me these in the meantime!

Cheers and humble thanks,


Abu Zilif said...

MLS made me a soccer fan. I stopped hating soccer because I got to experience the World Cup while I was traveling in Germany, but without MLS I would have become one of those people who follow the USMNT like they follow Michael Phelps every four years. I got to come home, settle into my normal life, and have a place where I could go and chant and sing and do all the things I'd seen in Germany while actually having a stake in the game. That was the most important part. MLS allows you to be a real fan, to have a home stadium and a chance to smell the smoke and have a handshake with a player, and that's all the difference in the world.