As someone who considers himself a true believer in “The Beautiful Game,” I’m having a bit of an existential crisis these days.
Instead of questioning whether my life has meaning, purpose or value, though, I’m questioning whether my feelings toward American soccer have meaning, purpose or value.
To say they’re mixed would be a huge understatement.
On the one hand, I strongly favor the world model – and the engine that runs the world model is promotion and relegation – so I want fundamental change in the way the United States conducts the business of soccer.
I agree with virtually every word that’s been written which criticizes our closed pyramid, stunning gender inequality, and a youth soccer club structure that stifles diversity and is often more dependent on mommy and daddy’s money than the skill of the kids.
And the election of Carlos Cordeiro as United States Soccer Federation president likely means little will change in the umbrella organization. He is an insider who came into the election as the sitting vice president of the USSF, and it’s doubtful he’ll push for any kind of meaningful reform.
That suggests the people who run American soccer (and vote for the way it is run) like the way things are, and the way things are dictates that Major League Soccer is the country’s only first division league.
You can’t play your way into it, you can only buy your way into it via a $150 million franchise fee. It’s the standard American professional sports model and it’s anathema to the spirit of soccer’s intended international structure.
I like MLS … always have.
I remember sitting in my living room on April 6, 1996, watching Eric Wynalda score the lone goal in the San Jose Clash’s victory over DC United in the first game in MLS history.
I’ve never even been to San Jose, but I leapt into the air as though they had just scored the greatest goal in the history of association football.
I was so happy to see North America bring back “top tier” soccer I wasn’t thinking about things like promotion/relegation, fan ownership, or the fact that some of the best soccer players in the United States and Canada might never get a real chance to grow because they can’t afford to play for their local elite club teams.
I was part of more than 55,000 fans packed into Bobby Dodd Stadium to watch Atlanta United FC make their league debut against the New York Red Bulls last March, and it was one of the most enjoyable fan experiences I’ve ever had.
It was a real soccer crowd and a real soccer experience.
And I always make a point to watch the Seattle Sounders face the Portland Timbers. The fans (the Emerald City Supporters on one side and Timbers Army on the other) create an atmosphere that practically bleeds through the television. Being in the crowd for one of their matches is near the top of my soccer bucket list.
MLS is closing in on half a century of existence and has put down deep and sturdy roots in North America. After a bit of a shaky start, it survived and now thrives, with cities vying for its affections and construction of soccer-specific stadiums becoming the rule rather than the exception.
The United Soccer League is a solid second division circuit, and next year D3, the USL’s third division league, debuts.
But remember what I said about the American sports model?
That works out fine for the current owners, coaches and players in MLS. And it’s obvious there are millions of people who are cool with the Americanization of the sport.
Yet if the United States ever wants to get in line with the rest of the soccer world, it’ll probably have to find a way outside MLS because MLS – with its single entity structure – has no reason to change.
Just last summer the league rejected a $4 billion TV deal that came with the stipulation of pro/rel. MLS commissioner Don Garber and the league’s stakeholders wanted no part of it.
“We are playing the world’s game but we are playing it here in North America that has a very, very competitive structure that has proven to work very well for the other major leagues that are in many ways the model for professional sports throughout the world,” Garber told ESPN FC in 2016.
While I never anticipate a day when MLS replaces the English Premier League, Bundesliga or Scottish Premier League as the primary object of my pro soccer affections, I still enjoy it.
Of course I wish it would adopt pro/rel, but I’ve taken a “don’t hate the player, hate the game” attitude when I watch, especially since so many players I covered in college now play in the league.
However, I am going to start thinking with more of a grassroots mentality.
I’m going to follow with great interest any renegade league and renegade idea that comes along, whether it’s Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer’s “Division Zero” initiative (a pro league not sanctioned by FIFA) or the continued evolution of the fledgling National Independent Soccer Association.
I’ve said since its formation the NISA might just be the start of something revolutionary.
I hope it is.
I’ll support my local team, Greenville FC, which makes its National Premier Soccer League debut in May, and I’ll continue to cheer for the venerable Atlanta Silverbacks.
The 20-year old club has started a trust that will help fans buy 25 percent of the team.
As soon as I get some disposable income, I might just make a contribution.
And I want to see a stable women’s league and the United States Women’s National Team treated with the respect – financial and otherwise – it deserves.
I want to believe we’ll eventually come to the realization that the tried and true model of “soccer from the ground up” is the only model that will give us the chance to be a real soccer nation, and it will become the rule, not the exception.
This harangue reminds me of a line from the 2005 movie “The Game Of Their Lives,” which chronicled (in a very Hollywood way) the United States’ stunning victory over England in the 1950 World Cup.
“You want to know why soccer is the world’s greatest sport? I’ll tell you why. Because all you need is the ball and an open space. You don’t need fancy equipment or special fields. You don’t have to be big or strong or tall. It’s the most democratic of all the sports. The people’s game. Your people’s game. And America’s game in the future.”
Will it be a closed pyramid future? A pro/rel future? A future that features both options?
Shoot, I can even envision a future in which our men’s national team qualifies for the World Cup again.
Regardless, I’ll be there for it all – probably still trying to come to grips with my own mixed emotions.