Tripping back through soccer-chatting archives

Seems fitting that a new-ish soccer site would launch by paying tribute to the early days of online soccer-gabbing.

That’s exactly what Jason Davis, Trevor Hayward and a new site called Backheel did. And they were nice enough to include my thoughts, along with those of several others who were part of the wild roller-coaster of sharing soccer information and discussion on this newfangled thing called the Internet.

Bruce McGuire, the man behind the DuNord blog and its terrific daily news wrap, has long called soccer “the sport of the Internet.” And there’s no doubt the Internet gave soccer a huge boost. (I’ve covered two sports that thrived in new media — soccer and MMA. Coincidentally, Bruce is also a fan of both.)

The old North American Soccer mailing list was full of lively and occasionally pointed discussions. But it was also a clearinghouse for information you weren’t likely to get elsewhere. If you wanted a report on an A-League game, you weren’t likely to find one unless the local paper had (A) an interest in covering its local team and (B) a fully functional website. Thanks to NAS, you’d have one waiting in your inbox with a subject line like “NAS Carolina-Rochester (R) – another brawl breaks out.”

From there, people branched out. They formed independent news sites, trying to fill the void in coverage on events like the U.S. Open Cup. They flocked to BigSoccer, where a lot of us spent our Saturday mornings giving each other updates on European games with U.S. players. (Hey, Joe-Max is getting in the game for Everton!) Some of us working at smaller papers got jobs at bigger papers and started sneaking more and more soccer coverage onto the websites.

And this was itself a branch of rec.sport.soccer, which had compiled a simple and comprehensive archive of global results that’s still up on the web in its 1995-HTML glory.

We also had a wonderful sense of serendipity. Look at the topics covered on a typical day in 1995: A-League results and tables (including one in 3-1-0 format, which the league wasn’t using), analysis of the U.S. U-23 midfield, a rant on the USISL Boston Storm (with Preston Burpo!), a request to find a bar showing Copa America in Philly, Mexican coaching rumors, etc. Another day has discussion of the as-yet-unnamed New York/New Jersey and Washington MLS teams, the news that Preki had won the CISL’s MVP award, a look ahead to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, a CISL recap (Dallas Sidekicks drew a league-record 16,427 fans), and this age-old complaint: “If MLS thinks they can sell soccer on artificial turf they are dreaming in technicolor!”

I might be overromanticizing the sense of community we had in those days. We were surely a fractious bunch. We argued about the direction MLS would take and what would happen to the A-League and other then-USL divisions.  But there was a sense that we were all in this together and that a rising tide would lift all boats.

And what I’m not overromanticizing is what a lifeline this was. I could go to Soccernet, which was literally a father-and-son operation at the outset, and check the latest standings in Europe. That, plus the still-indispensable Soccer America, gave me some sense of the context for the broadcast I would hear when I aimed my shortwave radio’s antenna out the window to listen to the BBC.

It’s easy to take everything for granted now. We wake up on the weekends, flip on the TV and listen to Rebecca Lowe hosting NBC’s uber-professional coverage of the Premier League. We have our pick of sites for live scores and lineups. We can dissect games in real time on Twitter. Feedly can scour all of our favorite news sources for the latest stories.

So that community has fractured a bit. Now the East Coasters all hate the smug Cascadians who think they invented soccer supporter culture. MLS isn’t progressing quickly enough for some tastes, and the arguments lead to accusations of self-interest rarely seen this side of the Koch brothers. Everyone thinks he’s the only person in the world who pays attention to the Open Cup and everyone else is out to silence it.

Such things come with progress. And that’s good. MLS would look quite ridiculous playing by the same allocation rules it had in 1996, not to mention the shootout. Lower-division soccer collapsed but is finding its roots again. And the world’s best players are on U.S. TVs almost as often as Spongebob.

The past was fun. The present and future are even better.

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