By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 30, 2018) US Soccer Players - As a matter of marketing-led tradition, MLS likes to package its myriad rivalries together into a couple of big blowout weekends. The better to leverage the passion in matches between teams who don’t (or shouldn’t) like one another based on history, geography, or something more ineffable.
For the league, it's a chance to service their sponsors and build on its audience. Rivalries help MLS dodge issues with quality and longevity by appealing to something other than an affinity for the game of soccer. Even better, a rivalry isn't dependent on success to be attractive. Bad teams can have rivals, too.
Only one rivalry game is on the schedule this weekend. Not only is that notable because the game is not part of any rivalry extravaganza round, but because it is the very first edition of the rivalry. It seems the league wants to spotlight the game. Rather than throw it into a pot containing the Cascadia Cup or Hudson River Derby, MLS is going to great pains to clear the deck to drive as much attention to it as possible.
The game is question pits the LA Galaxy against LAFC at the Stub Hub Center in Carson. A nationally televised affair, the match will kick off at noon local time and get a massive platform on over-the-air Fox. It's a sellout, one that should have some extra vibrancy as local LAFC fans get a chance to see their team play in person for the first time.
It's no surprise that the league’s marketing machine is in overdrive in the lead-up to the match, with the stakes already framed as a “battle for LA”. The Galaxy’s last-place finish in 2017 combined with the splash LAFC made in the area leading up to its launch this season added an extra layer of intrigue to the new rivalry. There was already going to be some ginned up fervor around the match. Sports fans are rarely slow to gin up fervor if an obvious rival presents itself. Still, events of the past year amplify the importance of the game.
As is ever the case, American soccer is again presented with the organic/manufactured conundrum. Almost by accident, the match between the two LA-based teams is being called El Trafico, a cheeky reference to the famous rivalry game between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the notoriously bad Los Angeles traffic. The name is corny and ridiculous, but fitting in a host of ways. As one would expect, it's a mixed reaction.
American soccer is too often overly sensitive about its standing in the rest of the world. As relative latecomers to the sport at a serious level, there's the need for validation from older soccer cultures that can border on desperate. Catering to a European-focused aesthetic explains most of the rebrands and new clubs names chosen in the last 15 years. MLS clubs don't want to seem too American, lest it turns off the discerning soccer fan.
Chasing the ghost of acceptance from people claiming backgrounds from where the game is life, or something, is a pointless endeavor that should have ended a long time ago. Rather than draw people in, playing to the snobs on the scene (or, more, aptly, taking the easy, neutral way out on branding) puts up a barrier between the sport and potential fans. Sports, especially in the United States, are a leisure time endeavor. No matter how badly certain segments of the soccer fan base want to play at the “‘til I die” motif, the vast majority of fans want an escape. “El Trafico” speaks more to that sensibility than any staid, marketing-heavy title could.
Potential soccer fans who might turn away from MLS because of something like “El Trafico” don’t exist, at least not in a way that the league needs to worry about. The league does itself a disservice when it leans into fans that might one day give it a shot, rather than focus on the fans who already have. Doing a better job with those fans because creating the sort of attractive communities other fans, no matter who they are, will want to be a part of.
There is a question as to whether “El Trafico” is “organic” in the strictest sense of the word. The tug-of-war in modern American soccer between naming something first and building out the history second and doing the opposite remains undecided. For those who would prefer to see the rivalry between the Galaxy and LAFC grow into something worthy of a name rather than starting with one, it’s worth asking where the line between organic and manufactured actually lies.
Before there was an internet, sobriquets for sports rivalries came from sports pages and broadcasts. In 2018, with information moving at a far more rapid pace and thousands of people screaming to be heard at any given moment, waiting for an organic process to deliver a title for the new LA rivalry game feels ridiculous.
According to several online polls, just about the best possible measure of such things in the digital age of interconnectivity, fans of both teams are more than happy to slap the “El Trafico” name on the rivalry.
Here’s something American soccer needs to come to grips with because there is no alternative. Almost nothing about the new institutions we establish here will ever have the luxury of being “organic”. The rush to slap labels on games, or create “traditions” out of whole cloth is just a natural reaction to the problem of time. Maybe MLS and its teams rush the process, sometimes over-thinking them, but all it takes is a full commitment and an earnest interest in connecting with fans to make those rush jobs stick.
There’s nothing wrong with “El Trafico”. If the name sticks, maybe it will help American soccer fans learn to relax. There’s no pleasing everyone, so we might as well try to please ourselves.
More From Jason Davis:
- How does a soccer club keep its identity?
- The Galaxy tries again, this time with Zlatan
- The MLS version of VAR controversy
- What will we learn in MLS week 3?
(Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com)