The final word on the Soccer Culture Wars, more or less

This post is not a reversal of my retirement from the Soccer Culture Wars. I would see it as encouragement to others to join me in retirement.

We’ll need to be clear — the Wars include some reasonable debate topics, especially those related to Jurgen Klinsmann, someone I would see as an underachiever at this point in his reign as U.S. Soccer national team coach and semi-official overseer of all things. But they also include promotion/relegation discussions that devolved into personal attacks around 2009 or so, and there they remain.

So the past couple of weeks have seen a confluence of SCW activity that I hope will actually bring about an end to things.

My retirement — not that I had been particularly active for some time — was based in part on conversations that reminded me how irrelevant these conversations really are. And then, as if soccer wanted to spite me one more time, a couple of well-intentioned people took such topics seriously.

It’s coincidence, of course — Sean Reid has been working on the book Love Thy Soccer for years and had no plans to publish it at the same time that Howler magazine published Kevin Koczwara’s piece on Ted Westervelt, the man who believes we can get pro/rel in this country if we just get on Twitter at scream at anyone perceived to be part of the status quo. It’s just bad timing for those of us who are resolving to ignore Ted and his circle of demons once and for all.

Let’s be clear — Love Thy Soccer is a book worth reading. It’s an expansive five-year survey of the good and bad of American soccer. I haven’t made it through the whole book yet, but what I’ve read is terrific except for the flaw of taking Westervelt seriously. There’s a chapter on promotion/relegation that relies heavily on Westervelt and brings up one person (Phil Schoen) to give the “con” argument. If you want to do a real pro/rel discussion, it needs to look a bit more like John Oliver’s climate change “representative debate,” in which he brought out 96 people to join Bill Nye against three climate-change deniers, thereby representing the actual scientific consensus on the matter:

Howler’s decision to do a Westervelt profile is a difficult one, and I wish editor George Quraishi would be a little less dismissive of those who disagree with it. That said, I think it turned out pretty well. I know Dan Loney was quite annoyed with his unwanted role in the story, and Loney decided to subject Koczwara and Quraishi to a constant barrage of Twitter harassment to see how they liked being on the receiving end of such nonsense as Westervelt and company perpetuate. But I view it the same way I would view a story on the woman marrying Charles Manson — I don’t expect to sympathize with her, but there could be some value in knowing what drives her to such action — in other words, asking what the hell is wrong with her.

And Koczwara is a terrific writer. Until I searched his name, I didn’t even realize he had written a piece about hockey enforcers that I loved six months ago. Loney’s objection notwithstanding, I think he did a good job handling this sensitive story, neither piling on with cheap shots nor letting Westervelt appear more sympathethic than he deserves to be.

But there is a danger in giving fringe voices a mainstream platform. Just look at cable news, where Ann Coulter and James Carville take turns poisoning our political system. Or other aspects of our postmodern media, where climate-change deniers and even creationists are often on equal footing with the “side” that actually has the plurality of facts.

Some people who are new to all this might not realize how far on the fringe these people are. But thankfully, they decided to demonstrate it on Twitter yesterday:

Wow. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? It’s curious (um, wasn’t pro/rel invented by a bunch of white dudes in England?) and inflammatory.

And some people, by all available evidence not “white,” had fun with it …

(By way of disclaimer, Francis used to work for MLS.)

Comedy aside, this is still a rather serious allegation. Perhaps Kleiban would care to explain?

I’m not sure whether he’s referring to me, Brown or someone else. I’d ask him to tell us which person he’s addressing and why he thinks that person is “disingenuous,” but he has apparently taken the position that his points are too brilliant to explain.

And the larger point here is that Westervelt and company were eager to jump onto this non-discussion.

(A comment from Pothunting appears to have been deleted.)

Then, subtly, the position started to change. Oh, we’re not really talking about pro/rel, even though it was explicitly mentioned in Kleiban’s tweet. It’s about the U.S. power structure, leaving Brown wrestling with the accusations of the absurd.

And it continues this morning:

That would be the same Soccer Morning that gave Westervelt a chance to call in and demonstrate that he’s a reasonable person, incidentally.

Here’s the thing: This is not unusual. This has been happening for YEARS. This is why most people in soccer — writers, administrators, etc. — no longer engage with these people. Read the Howler story for more on that.

The argument goes as follows: Anyone who points out the realities about pro/rel in the USA is one or more of the following:

  1. An upholder of the status quo and therefore an apologist for everything that’s wrong with U.S. Soccer — failure to win the CONCACAF Champions League, “pay to play” travel soccer (which, in the real world, MLS is trying to address), etc.
  2. A paid spokesman of MLS and the shadow conspiracy behind it that seeks to make money off soccer without making it better.
  3. Nonexistent. I’ve actually met Dan Loney, as have other people, but we’re all not trustworthy, apparently. In comparison, the Obama birther conspiracists seem sane. At least they admit Obama exists. (I do wish Howler hadn’t said “puppet” in the headline on the Westervelt piece — most people on Ted’s hit list have visible real names, while his “allies” include a few anonymous accounts.)

For the record, I’ll go through these allegations about myself. I don’t think anyone disputes my existence — I’ve led a rather public life with bylines in many major news organizations. I wrote a few fantasy columns for previous MLSNet management more than 10 years ago, and my book was written with MLS’s cooperation but no backing from the league. (I didn’t even let a guy pay for my lunch.) Currently, I have no season credential to cover MLS, and I haven’t been paid to write about the league for years.

My main project these days is a book on youth soccer. And that book will challenge the status quo on several fronts. Then again, it will also challenge soccer coaches with a God complex who think they have the answers to everything and refuse to hear evidence to the contrary.

If promotion/relegation happened in the next 5-10 years, it would surely be a net gain for me financially. I could write a sequel to Long-Range Goals and show how things have changed. I could probably sell a few freelance stories.

And no, I wouldn’t be selling out any principles in doing so. My position on promotion/relegation is actually one that can’t be wrong as such. Here it is:

  1. It would be cool. (Debatable)
  2. It is not feasible right now at the top divisions because the game’s investors have already taken on a lot of risk and are not in a position to take more at this time. (Only slightly debatable — and if it turns out investors are able to take that risk at some point, it’s still true because of the qualifiers “right now” and “at this time.”)
  3. It’s already in place in many amateur leagues (fact) and could be used in other lower divisions (speculative).
  4. It would not be a panacea for everything that ails the U.S. soccer talent pool. (Probably the most contentious part of my position, but it’s well-supported.)
  5. I hope we see it down the road, in part because it would be a symptom (not the cause) of a strong domestic game.

(The full recap would be here, here and here.)

So three things could happen in the next, say, 20 years:

  1. Pro/rel does not come to the USA’s top divisions. I was right.
  2. A major pro/rel attempt is made, but it fails. Also right.
  3. Pro/rel comes to the top divisions and works. Right again.

Maybe it’s not the bravest position, but I don’t care. I don’t have any interest in crusading one way or the other and winning a pointless debate on Twitter that won’t move the needle on pro/rel’s feasibility one bit. On pro/rel, I’m just a reporter.

I think there’s a place in this country for fans to tell U.S. Soccer they’d like to see pro/rel. I did an interview recently with a grad student writing a thesis in which he tries to overcome the actual factors against pro/rel (they’re mostly financial and logistical) and come up with a system that works. The advice I’d have for such people is this:

You’re going to be judged by the company you keep.

This is real. It’s why people who have had an interest in lower-division soccer sometimes have trouble taking the NASL seriously. (It’s also amusing to see the pro/rel folks talking up the NASL’s strength and setting themselves up as fountains of historical knowledge while forgetting how many USL/A-League teams have made great runs in the Open Cup. One day, an NASL team will win the Open Cup — just as the Rochester Rhinos did in 1999. MLSSoccer.com recognizes the Rhinos, but it doesn’t fit the “NASL = newfound second-division strength” narrative of the pro/rel zealots, nor does the fact that the USL actually dabbled in pro/rel and found that it didn’t magically make everything better.)

So there you have it. When it comes to the Soccer Culture Wars, the pro/rel zealots aren’t leading some sort of movement. They’re just typical Twitter trolls, spewing hate to feel better about themselves. For those who are new to this discussion, you had a chance yesterday to see their true colors — false accusations of everything from payola to racism. We know who they are.

And that’s why I have no interest in continuing to participate. We can talk about the real issues in U.S. soccer — the upcoming MLS collective-bargaining talks, whether Klinsmann is a mad genius or simply mad, what the NWSL needs to survive and thrive past the crucial third year, and why youth soccer has devolved into an arms race of parents who think they need to invest massive quantities of time, money and gas to their kids can realize their potential.

Peace out.

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One Response to The final word on the Soccer Culture Wars, more or less

  1. Dan Loney says:

    I think instituting pro/rel would be a sign of MLS and club weakness, not strength. It would be a last-ditch gimmick to put in artificial interest. And then pro/rel’s, pardon the term, myriad flaws would become apparent, and MLS would either fold on the spot or pound the undo button.

    And, what the hell, I’ll punish your blog’s readers instead of mine for a change. Obviously I’m not a neutral source, but that was objectively not a good article. The premise seemed to be “Wouldn’t it be funny to take Ted Westervelt to an MLS game, and see what happens.” The answer was “Nothing.” Plan B was to make Westervelt seem likeable, but the guy brought up pro/rel in literally every conversation.

    It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Beau. Something unholy and evil.

    By the way, can you imagine in a thousand years sending a child to be coached by Gary Kleiban? Jesus.

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