Building the US Football Landscape

Once there was a man named Egbert who lived in a shack.  It wasn’t much but due to circumstances, he had to make do.

 On a hill, not too far from Egbert’s humble abode, stood a beautiful mansion, looming large and proud.

 Then one day came an event that would change Egbert’s life.  As he sat in his shack, eating beans out of a can, listening to a hissy transistor radio, a noise interrupted him.  It was voice. Distant and muffled though it was, the annoyed tone forced its way through the buzzy tunes of the radio to Egbert’s ears.

 He wandered outside to investigate and found a man in tidy but casual garb, standing over a bicycle.  Egbert noted that the front tire was flat.  As the man spotted Egbert, his expression soften from frustration to optimism.  The two discussed the conundrum and is it happened, Egbert had the items needed to repair the bike.

 The man introduced himself as Colin and revealed that the mansion on the hill was his.  As a show of gratitude, he invited Egbert to join him for dinner.  Egbert accepted and as the two dined, they found one another to be good company.  A friendship was born.

 For years the two remained good friends and though Colin was never bored of Egbert and was always happy to have him around, he noticed that his pal was never keen on spending time in his shack.  When he brought this up to Egbert, his friend simply pointed out that the mansion was far superior to anything the Shack had to offer.  Colin accepted this because he was happy to have his pal around.

 Then one day, Colin gave Egbert a surprise.  It was a pile of bricks.  When a puzzled Egbert asked for an explanation Colin explained that the bricks were simply symbolic.  He was going to fund a building project for him.  He would cover the plans, materials, labor – everything!

 Egbert excitedly accepted this tremendous offer and got right to work, enthusiastically giving the architect details.  Colin left that day on business but would be back in a few weeks.

 When he returned, he was surprised to find the Egbert’s old shack just as it had been when he left it.  As he continued onto his mansion, he noticed that he had a whole new wing on his house.  He rushed inside to find Egbert relaxing in the wing.  Colin asked him why he hadn’t used the gift to build his own house.

 Egbert had a slightly baffled look on his face.  “Why would I do that?” he responded, “My shack is crap…”.

 

This reminds me very much of the attitude that I see in America, towards Major League Soccer and to an extent, the domestic game in general.

There are many soccer fans in this country that love the Premiership, the Champions League, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, the glitz, the glamour, the style of play.  You ask some people if they watch MLS and they look at you like you just flambéed their cat.  When you press for a reason why not, typically they tell you “because it’s crap”.  The technical level is “awful”.  The bigger players are “retirees”.  The rules are “stupid”.

The Premiership is now making more money than ever through its television deals.  In the US, its coverage is unprecedented.  You can actually see more live games here than in the UK – owing largely to Saturday football not being restricted from broadcast as it is there.  The clubs come to town on pre-season tours and 100k seater stadiums sell out.  I’ve seen countless friendlies against the LA Galaxy, where fans of the local team are lost in an ocean of Man United, Barcelona or Real Madrid fans.

Like Egbert, they’re spending their time in football’s equivalent of Colin’s mansion, tolerating their own digs only as much as they have to.

For all the improvements MLS makes in attendances, standard of play, quality of signings and even (at last) in terms of making in-roads to some kind of solid youth system, their TV numbers – while also growing – remain incredibly modest.  Even more depressingly, it feels like much of the soccer landscape here is populated with diverse and disparate bands.  As I mentioned in a recent post, MLS is held in disdain by many of them.  It seems there are entire movements dedicated to fighting MLS on behalf of just about any club that isn’t in it.  Any opportunity to pillory MLS or the USSF is eagerly taken with both hands, yet this passion distracts from aiding the national league in building something stronger.

Promotion and Relegation advocates accuse the league of anti-competitive behaviours over its relationship with the USSF.  Lower league clubs are held up as victims of an appalling system, even though improvements are happening there and they were in far worse condition when MLS was instituted.

My feeling is that we have the bricks.  Global football, the World Cup, the success of the Women’s team: the sport is growing here.  The trouble is, it’s building support for the club game abroad more than it is here.

The thing that gets me though – frustrates me in fact – is that by making MLS all it can be, you create a platform for the things that the detractors want.  TV ratings are money in this country perhaps more than anywhere else.  If the top level is seen to be on the rise, it will get progressively richer and we’ll soon have a strong, competitive league, full to bursting point.  For those championing the game outside MLS, this is actually a good thing.  If the league is full and you still have clubs emerging, filling the NASL and USL with growing quality, you create an argument for things like promotion and relegation organically.  You may not even need pro/rel.  Perhaps there’s a better option: something we haven’t seen or thought of yet.

Perhaps parity can finally deliver an impressive league that may not boast the likes of Barcelona and Bayern but does produce wall-to-wall Borussia Dortmunds and Atletico Madrids.  Perhaps that even influences how the game is organized elsewhere.  Perhaps we leverage that heavy youth participation into an elite production line.

I don’t know.

But for that to work, we need a foundation.  That’s very buildable on what we have right now.   But we need to stop the in-fighting, the fragmentation, the rejection of what we have for the home-comforts of a neighbor.

There’s a lot of football out there and many nice places to visit.  But wouldn’t it be even better to come home to?

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