American soccer: a study in ambivalence

As noted, I became a Liverpool fan because I was a fan of an American soccer team. Given most American sports’ leagues obsession with the short-term, as opposed to thinking of the future (see: the NCAA, concussions, one-and-done, expansion of the B1G to Rutgers and Maryland, resistance to obvious rule changes, etc., etc., etc.), I could never see the team I wanted to watch. I can see more of them now, 40 years later, on Youtube than I ever could as a kid:

So I became a fan of the team I could watch:

That was the end of American soccer to me. Even as a kid, the level of play was so much obviously higher that I lost interest in the NASL and completely ignored the Major Indoor Soccer League (the sports league that sounded more like an appliance than entertainment.) Truth be told, I’ve largely ignored MLS since its inception in 1996. By that time, I could see international soccer regularly and the respective levels of play hadn’t changed. Was any MLS team ever going to look as good as a Liverpool, or a Man United, or a Milan? No. Even worse, there was no local MLS team to even try out as a live event.

Coming around to the present day, we see that not much has changed. MLS, hemmed in by the salary controls of the central authority, can’t buy real talent from Europe or South America so the play on the field is often not even as good as watching lower level EPL or Bundesliga or La Liga teams square off. The league’s average salary is still less than the Championship, Eredivisie, or Liga MX and the play reflects that. Would I rather watch Watford take on Liverpool Jun- uh… Southampton than watch the LA Galaxy play the Portland Timbers? Generally, yes, even though I really wouldn’t take the time to watch either match, if I had something better to do. Michael Bird has been talking up Atlanta United as an offensive-minded and exciting team to watch and they’ve been selling out all their games in a huge stadium for the past couple years, so perhaps I’m missing out. But I remember watching some of the MLS Cup last fall and being fairly bored, even though both teams were populated by USMNT regulars, like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Each team can have a couple Designated Players; international stars nearing retirement who are coming over to MLS for playing time and a hefty paycheck, since they’re exceptions to the salary cap. The two most notable of the moment are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who’s been doing stuff like this:

And Wayne Rooney, who a couple days ago did this:

Now, far be it from me to ever say anything positive about Wayne Everton ManU Rooney, but that was an amazing play. The thing that sticks with me during that whole clip is that the whole play- everything in those few seconds that enabled DC United to go from a seeming draw to a sure loss to a crazy win -was done by Rooney. He chased down his man, made an amazing tackle, dribbled up the touchline, saw Acosta making a run, and put it squarely on his head from 35 yards out. And the fans and the rest of his team basically didn’t say a word to him. Everything was about Acosta, the goalscorer. Granted, it was a great leap from a guy who’s 5’3″, but the guy who made that win happen, singlehandedly other than Acosta being in the right place, and is the captain of the team can’t even get a handshake. The fans only think about the guy who scored.

That right there makes me think about a fundamental misunderstanding of the game by many Americans, fans or not. Yes, I appreciate goal scoring. One of the most entertaining players on Liverpool and in Europe right now is our own Mo Salah, because of his speed, his nimbleness with the ball, and because he scores goals. Mané and Firmino are the same way. But the MVP of the match on Sunday for me wasn’t the brace-scoring Mané, but the guy who enabled him to move so freely: Naby Keita. The ability to affect the pace of the game, to make the key pass, to raise the level of everyone around you; to help the team, the team, the team. That’s the highlight player to me. That’s why I’ve said since last season that the person most difficult to replace on the front line isn’t the swift Mané or skillful Salah, but Roberto Firmino. Bob makes the Liverpool engine run. And now we have Keita to do it in the midfield, too. Similarly, Rooney was everything on that play and yet he stood alone, without a single word of congratulation or appreciation by even his own team members. That, to me, is the difference between European football and American soccer.

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Another part of my continued disdain is, again, the lack of a local team. Yes, Ann Arbor has a very successful amateur team in the Mighty Oak of AFCAA and I have been to a few games (and which is covered in some detail by another author I’m hoping to lure here, occasionally, who also happens to be a Reds fan) and they’re a worthwhile way to spend a summer evening. But I’d take a lot more interest in MLS if there were a Detroit franchise that I could, likewise, head down to see in May or June and discover if it’s a thing that appeals. Detroit getting turned down in favor of Nashville and Cincinnati does my interest no favors. Detroit had a ready group of investor-owners, a stadium in place that can accommodate soccer, and what remains one of the more sports-mad populations in the nation (How else would you explain dedicated Lions fans?) Apparently, the fact that the bid proposed Ford Field as the location, instead of developing a soccer-specific stadium is part of what dropped Detroit behind. I can certainly understand the league’s desire for a stadium intended for soccer, since the experience can be less in stadia that aren’t (like, say, the Silverdome…) But two of the most successful and popular clubs in MLS, the Seattle Sounders and the aforementioned Atlanta United, play in multi-use stadia. For once, adding a team might actually do something positive for the local economy, since the taxpayers won’t be put upon to contribute anything to a millionaire’s pockets.

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Diego Costa, about to murderize the only player that could make me like Diego Costa (credit EurosportUK)

But what inspired this whole hopscotching survey of soccer in the US was the news that a regular season La Liga game will now be played somewhere in North America. Brought to you by Michigan’s own Stephen Ross, this is supposed to be how more fans will be drawn in to American soccer. If you’re wondering how Real Madrid and Barcelona fans will suddenly care about Orlando City because their team got uprooted from a home game and carted across the Atlantic in the middle of the season… Yeah, I don’t get it, either. If you want to see Barca play, then you want to see them at the Nou Camp. I was thrilled to see Liverpool five miles down the road from my place, but I knew it was a preseason friendly. It will never take the place of seeing them at Anfield. Even worse will be the situation for whomever the sacrificial victim is among the Deportivos and Gironas of the league if they get a home game taken away. They go from having the support of their own fans to a default road game against a Real or Barca crowd. And, again, that’s not going to create more fans of Real Salt Lake. It’s just going to excite the fans of Los Blancos and probably drive more of them to my perspective: Why would I watch MLS when I can watch La Liga every weekend?

Do I think the cause of American soccer is hopeless? Of course not. Despite the best lack of effort by Sunil Gulati, the academy system for some MLS franchises is beginning to bear fruit. Of course, they’re still losing a great deal of potential while the youth system remains pay-to-play. Some US players are being noticed across the globe. But they’re being noticed for German and English clubs and have little interest in playing in the salary- and glory-capped MLS. Can a soccer league work without relegation? How does any American sports league work except as a cartel? Let’s get into that some other time.

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