Part three in our three-part feature on how we choose the teams we root for. You can find part 1 here and part II here. (Yes, we got confused with our Arabic/Roman numerals, but we’re just going to stick with it. Be glad this one’s not in binary.)
The problem with MLS teams trying to draw in casual fans based on their play — one of the main modes by which a team can pick up fans through the curiosity motive — is not that there’s less to appreciate in MLS than in other leagues, but that those things to be appreciated are less obvious. I don’t think we should blame soccer neophytes for having a negative gut reaction to MLS, particularly in comparison to teams in Europe. I think we ought to blame the people who should know better: Those who are already soccer fans, who choose to snub the league as beneath them.
Having a high appreciation of the game doesn’t mean you can only bring yourself to watch Barcelona or else you’ll harm your delicate sense of soccer aesthetics; in fact it’s the opposite. It means you can watch and enjoy games whether they’re Columbus vs. San Jose or Indiana vs. UCLA or Hickory vs. Ridgemont High because you understand the battles taking place: whether the defense is pushing up to deny service to the other team’s forwards or staying deep to prevent potential breakaways, how the midfield is trying to bypass their opposite numbers, whether players on the outside hug the touchline or come inside.
Fortunately, this type of American fan, the kind who should know better is becoming rarer. I think it’s safe to say that ten years ago, eight years ago, five years ago, there was a sense that to be a true fan in this country, you had to know what was going on in Europe. That was where the real action was, that was how you showed your devotion to the game. The MLS was an afterthought; you might go to games every once in a while, but with just 10 teams in 2003, chances were you couldn’t. Eurosnobs were the highest caste, and they could and often did disparage the game here.
Now, Euro-awareness is the norm. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fan in America who isn’t following the league in England or Italy, Spain or Germany, or all of the above. The real fans now — the consensus seems to be — are the ones who also keep abreast of what’s going on in the MLS. The pendulum of moral righteousness in soccer fandom has swung back. Few fans who prefer European soccer will admit to disdain, or indeed anything stronger than apathy, towards the MLS.
But an awful lot of them do still feel that apathy. They haven’t developed a connection — geographical, communal, or curiosital — to a team or the league as a whole, but I’d argue that it has less to do with the level of play and more with playing style. Or rather, the lack thereof. Or rather, the perception of the lack thereof.
I know that Real Salt Lake likes to keep possession and move the ball around on the ground, that FC Dallas successfully reinvented themselves after David Ferreira’s injury, that Colorado have scored at least two goals in every game since introducing their “Catch Us If You Can” forward tandem of Sanna Nyassi and Omar Cummings. But I follow the league pretty closely. How could someone who doesn’t possibly be aware of all this?
The best example of what I’m talking about is the NBA of the 1980s. The league’s popularity ballooned not because of Michael Jordan but before him, when the best teams were defined not by their stars but by the styles those stars imposed on their teammates. The Showtime Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, Houston’s Twin Towers and eventually the Bad Boy Pistons. These were teams with identities unto themselves.
This is a good thing for an MLS team, because it provides a kind of shorthand into how they play. It allows fans who are apathetic to know beforehand whether they might be interested in watching a team, and fans who don’t know what to look for to get an idea of what the squad is trying to accomplish as they watch. Promoting a style of play isn’t going to help the opposition: it’s not exactly a state secret to say that Colorado is going to look to make use of their forwards’ speed.
Personally, the Rapids are the first MLS team to pique my curiosity this year. Even when Nyassi and Cummings don’t score, the extra space afforded their midfielders by back defenders sitting deep leads to goals. Watching their evisceration of New York it becomes clear that the Rapids are, more than anything, the world’s best rec league team. The idea they’re using to win games is so simple yet so brilliant, a hundred-thousand youth coaches try the same thing every year, but rarely does it work as well as this.
Having a style doesn’t make the Rapids as good as top European teams, but it does give them an identity like those teams have, something to peg them on like Barcelona’s “Incredible Machine” attack or Manchester United’s “Hit dangerous-looking balls into the box and wait for SAF’s corrupt deal with the Devil to cause one to fall to Rooney’s foot or bounce in off the likes of Steven Reid” offense. But for a casual or newly blooded fan familiar with the Rapids’ style, it’s a foothold into watching them, to enjoying them, and maybe even to supporting them.
Eventually they won’t need that foothold. The more soccer the casual fan watches, be that Barcelona v. Manchester United, Dallas Texans v. Baltimore Bays, or two buddies battling in FIFA, the greater his knowledge and appreciation of the game will be. Gradually, the level of play and the level of fan understanding will rise together but independently, until less of the latter will be needed to appreciate the former. As the league improves so will the ability of the average American soccer viewer to appreciate what the MLS players are doing, and they’ll be more likely to find and befanteams for reasons other than geography and community.
1. Even college basketball had teams like Louisville’s “Doctors of Dunk” and the University of Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma,” which is the number one example of how far the art of bestowing nicknames has fallen. If an MLS squad had a moniker as cool and descriptive as PSJ, I wouldn’t need to be writing this.
2. And subsequent games. That victory over the Red Bulls gets less impressive as they continue to struggle.
3. I mean it as a compliment.
4. It’s like befriend. Duh.