Dispatches from the U.S. soccer culture wars

From Tarkus to Fury, the artistically inclined people among us have sketched out portraits of conflict that just keeps going and going, eventually devouring the war-weary veteran and the new enlistee alike.

(At least, I think that’s what Tarkus is about. I get lost somewhere in the middle of Keith Emerson’s fourth keyboard solo.)

And so it goes with what Charles Boehm has succinctly labeled the Soccer Culture War.

Some people are willing, even enthusiastic participants. Some aren’t, but they feel some twisted sense of duty.

Like a lot on conflicts, the root is more rhetorical than real. Deep down, most of the warriors all want the same thing — good soccer in the United States. But fragile identities and defensiveness make us easy to call out.

(Yes, The Simpsons riffed on that scene last season, one of the more esoteric pop-culture references in show history.)

Let’s look at the issues and the opinions:

Promotion/relegation is something U.S. professional soccer …

  1. … really needs to do as soon as possible, and we shouldn’t take MLS seriously in the meantime.
  2. … should work toward in 10 years or so, and it would make us all feel a lot better about MLS if we knew it was in the future.
  3. … may be in position to consider in 10 years or so, but it really doesn’t affect how we feel about MLS at the moment.
  4. … can never consider. Ever.

Most people fall in the “2” or “3” category. But I think most of the online battles take place between the “1” and “3” groups, with the occasional rant from a “4” and some interjections from the “2” group.

The single-entity structure in MLS …

  1. … is proof that this is just a bunch of NFL owners trying to squeeze money out of a sport they don’t care about it, and it inhibits clubs from competing about anything.
  2. … is something the league may have needed in the first decade or so but needs to hurry up and dismantle.
  3. … is something from which the league has gradually moved away and should continue to do so by eliminating its vestigial restrictions on player movement.
  4. … (OK, honestly, I have no idea what the “4” group would be here.)

Again, the loudest group is “1.” You can have productive discussions between “2” and “3.”

Soccer fans in this country are as likely or more likely to watch European or Mexican soccer than MLS because …

  1. … MLS has single-entity and no pro/rel, which obviously makes all its players stink like an overflowing hog waste lagoon.
  2. … MLS isn’t quite doing enough to improve the quality of play. It can’t catch the EPL in the foreseeable future, but it needs to make a few strides.
  3. … these overseas leagues have generations of history and giant fan bases that allow them to spend freely on players and/or bring them up through well-established academy programs, and soccer is better entrenched in those countries as the top sport by far. (Which is not the case in, say, India, China, Australia, etc.)
  4. … they’re snobs who feel the need to differentiate themselves to feel superior to others. They used to be able to do that by being soccer fans in a country of baseball and gridiron fans, but now that the soccer fan base has grown, they have to be part of a more elite subset.

Again, I’m probably a “3,” but I see the “4” group’s point. And “2.”

People who watch MLS …

  1. … are ignorant tools who are content with mediocrity and don’t want anything better.
  2. … support the domestic league despite its faults, and it’d be great if they could also demand more change.
  3. … feel that the only way the league will improve will be if it’s stable and bringing in more money to invest in players and academies.
  4. … are patriotic Americans.

See the pattern? The “2” and “3” groups differ only in the details.

The NASL …

  1. … is the home of true American soccer because the commissioner says he wouldn’t mind seeing pro/rel at some point, and it’s only a matter of time before they start outbidding MLS on players (even though no one has shown much interest in doing that beyond the occasional fringe player).
  2. … is an interesting league that may provide just a bit of competition to keep MLS on its toes.
  3. … is a second division, no different from the old A-League (which actually did experiment with pro/rel but didn’t get very far), that is valuable because it put professional soccer in more cities and allows some owners to test the waters before moving to MLS.
  4. … has delusional fans.

“4” is certainly an extreme generalization. “1” is pretty ridiculous and doesn’t mesh with the way NASL teams are actually acting.

The U.S. soccer media …

  1. … is totally in the pocket of MLS and the USSF. Or scared to lose their credentials. Or just idiots. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.
  2. … needs to take a harder look at what’s holding back MLS and U.S. Soccer.
  3. … are diverse and rapidly growing, from independent bloggers to mainstream media reporters who now have soccer as their primary beat (or only beat) rather than a secondary or tertiary thing … or even something they used to hide from editors.
  4. … are just great.

I don’t think “4” actually exists. “2” has valid points. “3” is absolutely correct. Just consider Sports Illustrated — a few years ago, Grant Wahl covered soccer and college basketball. Now he’s one of a handful of soccer specialists.

And finally, the most recent flare-up …

Jurgen Klinsmann’s fretting over U.S. players returning to MLS …

  1. … is right on! Go, Jurgen! And how dare Don Garber oppress him by disagreeing!
  2. … is a legitimate concern, perhaps inelegantly expressed but still valid.
  3. … misses the mark because the players in question found better situations in MLS than they had in Europe, and players should always seek out the best situation rather than simply assuming the top European leagues are better.
  4. … proves that he’s clueless. Fire Klinsmann!

To sum up … if you find yourself most often associated with one of these groups, you are …

  1. … a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist who is probably on my “block” list on Twitter.
  2. … reasonable. Perhaps easily offended from the occasional interaction with a “4,” but you can be talked back into a productive discussion on the issues.
  3. … too reasonable. Get over yourself and argue with the rest of us.
  4. … too cynical, having been through too many of these arguments.

The people who’ve been around the longest tend to be “4.” We’ve discussed a lot of these issues since the old days of the North American Soccer mailing list and the launch of MLS. And the “1” list dominated conversation for too long.

I think the “2” group is growing. They skew younger, asking legitimate questions about why MLS and U.S. Soccer are the way they are. Show them the answers, and they’ll understand but continue to seek ways to push everything toward Eurotopia.

The “3” group needs a nap.

One day, we may have pro/rel in this country, and we may see little difference between the way MLS operates and the way the Bundesliga operates. (My guess is that the Bundesliga will lead the way in pushing “Financial Fair Play” so that its teams don’t explode in spectacular fashion.) But if that happens, it won’t be because of someone unreasonably screamed for it on Twitter.

Milhouse: We gotta spread this stuff around. Let’s put it on the internet!

Bart: No! We have to reach people whose opinions actually matter!

That said, I think some good could come of talking through all these issues. MLS has a history of talking with and listening to its supporters. So if you’re for that, go ahead.

If you’re screaming at me, of all people, now four years removed from USA TODAY and with no major pro men’s soccer platform, I’m just going to block you. Life’s too short for all these wars.

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6 Responses to Dispatches from the U.S. soccer culture wars

  1. James says:

    Let’s take Sasha Klejestan, went to Europe, plays in champions league every year, couldnt beat out 11 MLS players for the World Cup squad.

  2. MLS Boy says:

    Group Pi can’t make up its mind and is still figuring out where it stands exactly in all of this.

  3. Ray Radlein says:

    I wasn’t quite sure which group I was in until I got to the part about needing a nap. Put me down for one of those.

  4. Dan Loney says:

    I can give you a 4 on single entity – if something has proven to work for twenty years, which oh by the way is an American record in that particular industry, then the incentive to change it is miniscule. Single entity also is the logical conclusion of sports as a form of entertainment. Movie studios and television networks compete against each other, but sports teams do not.

    Further the more, all dismantling single entity would do is allow teams to bid against each other for the sort of players that can already command a bidding war. A growing audience and a growing sponsorship base will give the players’ union leverage to raise rank-and-file salaries – and with or without single entity, salaries aren’t going up without union leverage.

    If single entity were abolished tomorrow, people would be shocked at how little MLS would change. Just like with promotion and relegation, all it would do is hinder the development of soccer markets.

    As far as media, we need a -1 category, what with Billy Haisley out there “covering” MLS for a major site.

    The Cosmos have delusional fans.

    I’d have put this on my own blog, but I have no jokes for it. Sorry, Beau.

  5. Sgc says:

    “The single-entity structure in MLS …

    4… (OK, honestly, I have no idea what the “4” group would be here.)”

    Probably something like “is crucial to parity, which in turn is crucial to the league’s long-term stability and growth.”

    There’s a case to be made, for instance, that the huge investment that made Sporting Kansas City one of the most spectacular franchise turnarounds not only in US Soccer but in sports in general never happens without single entity or something substantially like it.

    MLS is right now having its cake and eating it too with respect to parity. Big clubs are getting the big names, and other than Toronto are going to the playoffs more often than not, but you don’t see well-run smaller markets like RSL and SKC getting shut out. So having a big budget is an advantage, but it doesn’t mean the season’s over for two thirds of the league’s teams before it began. The fact that DC United was historically bad doesn’t preclude them from being first this year.

  6. Steve Davis says:

    Incredibly well thought out analysis of it all. Like bookmarkable-level things going on here. It’s as clear a delineation of how things generally stand and the source of conflict going on as I’ve seen. And like politics or most other things billed as “INTENSE DISAGREEMENTS”, it’s the people on opposite fringes making the most noise and the most heat, but the majority exists closer to the middle and can absolutely have a reasonable discussion while perhaps disagreeing on details or even fundamental things.

    Bravo, sir.

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