By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 10, 2015) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer has a “but” problem. Whether you're pleased or peeved with what's happening in North America's top-tier professional league, whatever it may be, there's always a catch. Don't believe me? Just try it.
MLS survived so much to emerge from its second decade of existence in good health and bright spirit. BUT... that's due in large part to the enormous truckloads of cash – about a quarter of a billion dollars, according to commissioner Don Garber – dumped into it by a few billionaires to sustain massive financial hemorrhaging in the early years.
MLS spent years identifying hospitable markets and building stadiums, and now they've gone about filling them with increasing regularity and passion. BUT... the league continues to struggle for relevance in mainstream US and Canadian society, and draws mostly pitiful television ratings even compared to weekend morning broadcasts of foreign competitions, to say nothing of closer rivals like the NFL, NBA and Liga MX.
MLS has elevated its level of their play dramatically over 20 years, with “watchability” and star power that 1990s observers would scarcely recognize. BUT... its Soviet-esque centrally-run leadership still insists on prioritizing cost savings over quality and nurturing penny-pinching clubs at the expense of more ambitious cohorts.
See what I mean?
BUT... last weekend in Columbus, I got an up-close look at one of the few areas where it's possibly to be unreservedly impressed with whatever “operating system” version of MLS we're on at the moment.
Two of the MLS Cup 2015's goals were scrappy. OK, they were downright ugly. The third depended on a stunning officiating blunder that will be cursed in central Ohio for years to come. Those of us lucky enough to take in the match in person will remember the spectacle – the dazzling, loud, passionate spectacle – for far longer than the main incidents on the field.
Tickets to the big event at MAPFRE Stadium went on sale on Monday and sold out in well under 24 hours, and this was no paper sellout. The place was packed to the gills, mostly by home fans clad in Columbus Crew SC's black and gold but with a large and very vocal minority of Portland Timbers supporters, more than 2,000 of whom flocked to Ohio on a week's notice. And the excitement was palpable on both sides.
Over the past two years Crew SC have tweaked their brand (including their very name) and hired an ambitious new coach bearing an expansive new playing style. With all that capped by an exciting and somewhat unexpected run to the cup final, this founding MLS club finds itself as relevant to its home city as it's ever been.
Conversely, Portland's rich history is encapsulated by its “5/40” theme this season, which has celebrated the club's fifth campaign in MLS concurrently with its 40th year of existence. Those who haven't visited the Rose City to understand its “Soccer City USA” title firsthand would have no problem sniffing out PTFC's deep-dyed place in its community during cup weekend. The Timbers quite literally airlifted in their version of fan culture with shocking speed and efficiency.
Of course, this league long ago realized the value of pageantry, even the artificial, self-conjured kind. There was some of that as well. Still, with a dearth of “household name”-level superstars or big markets to choose from, the pomp that really mattered came from the supporters themselves. The type that the league itself has relatively little to do with. “The league,” in this case, was merely a platform for the clubs and their fans to shine.
You wouldn't get any such idea from the huge media push seen over the past week or two. In fact, nearly every time I heard Garber's name come up in conversations with fans, it was swiftly followed by the sort of lusty, creative cursing rarely heard outside high-school locker rooms and blue-collar bars.
Granted, as the figurehead of a large, complex multinational entity, Garber is inevitably going to become the human manifestation of supporters' frustrations and grievances, often unfairly so. But the committed fans certainly do pay attention to league-wide politics and generally seem to feel, rightly or wrongly, that they and their team are seen as little more than pawns in the geopolitical games that they believe are being played out at MLS headquarters in Manhattan.
This will sound familiar for those with knowledge of the cauldrons of Europe and South America. In many of the world's most soccer-centric places, central authority figures of any kind are seen as an embedded irritant, often incompetent or corrupt (or even both) and always unhelpful to the game itself and those who love it most. Club loyalties matter most of all, thanks also to the holistic nature of fandom and a 24/7/365 devotion to the sport.
For all his bravery (or is it just foolhardiness?) in wading into soccer minutiae in front of the microphones and cameras, Garber is a gridiron football guy himself. It's not hard to see the lessons that MLS takes from the moneyed NFL behemoth, which advertises its consumers' devotion with one hand while urging them to buy as many teams' jerseys as possible with the other, either.
But watching the supporters of two of his so-called “small-market clubs” put on such a memorable spectacle on a cold December day made me hope he was paying as much attention to the MAPFRE stands as he was to the TV ratings. At this stage, it really is all about the fans.
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