I did my best to welcome Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy, I really did.
Even as the chunk of my soul dedicated to Man United quivered uneasily, I put his status as Liverpool Legend aside. En route to his debut game, I stopped off at Party City. There I purchased a false mustache and curly wig and dressed myself in tribute to Harry Enfield’s approximation of “the scouser”.
Of course, few at the Stubhub Center understood the reference, but it seemed a fitting compromise between embracing his arrival to my local team and satisfying the urge to aim a little banter at the old enemy.
Naturally, I hoped he would do well for the club. As it happened, an inner-conflict was never really in any danger of occurring anyway. Aside from the odd moment here and there – usually after coming off the bench late on, when stamina levels around the field were closer to his post-peak base-level – his time with the Galaxy was a major disappointment.
Well, apart from one aspect: he did put the expected bums in seats. Giovani Dos Santos didn’t hurt either in that respect, but a good number of Liverpool shirts started to dot the crowd at the Stubby over the next 18 months.
I’m sure the resultant uplift in attendance was a relief for the Front Office. Not that the Galaxy had been horribly attended in recent years but they’d certainly seen a modest decline.
The sad thing, is that during this minor post-Beckham, pre-“Other Marquee Soccer Name” lull, the Galaxy played some of best football I’ve ever seen from an MLS side.
This period would be – mildly controversially – dubbed the “Tiki-Taco” era (due to the prominence of Mexican Cuisine in Southern California) and it featured a style of play characterised by intricate passing, possession football and serial thrashings. Bruceball while not dead, had slipped into Odinsleep.
Yet it seems that a player familiar to fans via his participation for a major Premiership Club in Gerrard, or for a popular regional national team and association with Europe in Gio, were far more alluring than a dominant dynasty, playing the game beautifully.
If that wasn’t enough to hammer the point home, while the hordes flocked to the StubHub Center to watch an inconsistent 2016 Galaxy, a spent Stevie G and a dysfunctional forward line of Gio and Keane, FC Dallas were doing everything that American soccer fans claim to want from Major League Soccer.
The boys from Frisco, TX were romping towards glory in the form of a Supporters Shield and US Open Cup double and but for an upset at the hands of eventual winners the Seattle Sounders, an unprecedented treble. What’s more, they were doing it in a superior technical and tactical style, with the youngest and lowest-paid roster in the league.
We constantly hear from detractors that MLS’s quality “sucks”, that it’s not doing enough for player development, that it lacks narrative and that it’s “just a retirement league”. This is often the justification for supporting a Man United or Barcelona and shunning the domestic league.
Yet a team with no aging Designated Players, prominently featuring talent developed by the team, succeeding in style, chasing potential history, were also the worst attended in the entire league.
This isn’t new of course. It wasn’t so long ago that Jason Kreis’s Real Salt Lake, dubbed as “the team without stars” and the antithesis of the early implementation of the Designated Player Rule, was lauded by MLS enthusiasts for their astutely built squad and tactically-nuanced approach. While RSL didn’t quite manage to add to their 2009 MLS Cup, they remained one of the leagues best teams.
Despite this, RSL’s success didn’t significantly translate into mainstream attention or a boost to the reputation of MLS’s quality. The TV-watching public it seemed, were far more taken with the large, loud crowds at the Seattle Sounders’ CenturyLink. The lesson taken from the era was not “Look what RSL built – this could be a blueprint for improving MLS play” but “Look at the atmosphere at Sounders games – we should build more of our Soccer Specific Stadiums downtown”.
I can anticipate a potential response to my point: that whatever strides individual teams may have made in terms of on-field product, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the EPL, La Liga or even Liga MX.
The problem is, change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. Electing not to watch MLS until it reaches that level, does nothing but slow down or even limit that process.
I know that some feel the league isn’t improving fast enough and reject it on that basis. Others feel that parity measures designed to keep the league competitive, amount to nothing more than “forced mediocrity”.
I can speak only from my own experience on the latter point: parity measures felt strange and foreign to me when I moved to the states. My brother once eloquently expressed his comfort with clubs having differing statuses thus: “I sort of like the idea that Derby are shit”. However, I’ve come to love the concept of parity.
No MLS supporter ever has to settle for the idea that their team will never compete for the title. No season is a foregone conclusion. Day 1, as Ian Darke frequently declares about the Premiership, “anything can happen”. And unlike in the EPL bar the Leicester City miracle, in MLS it frequently does.
I once used the analogy of MLS parity rules being like Chess. Each team starts off with the same set of rules, the same pieces to play with, the same game board. It’s the team that uses them most effectively that succeeds. In soccer elsewhere, richer players are allowed to buy and deploy your queen and poorer players are rarely in a position to refuse.
The bottom line though, is that MLS literally needs to make money. I often hear the proposal that if a team, rather than spending $6m on a DP, were allowed to spread that across the roster, it could buy better players. The issue here is that often, the only reason a club can afford to pay a DP that amount is due to the uplift in revenues as a result of having that player. In a sense, they cover their own cost. Without them, much of that $6m isn’t available.
So MLS is stuck right now. We hear the demands for higher quality, better youth development, fewer aging stars, more narrative, yet when an RSL, an LA Galaxy or in particular, the current FC Dallas delivers some or all of those things, we find that the demand is ineffective. It turns out to be more of an ideal. A philosophy rather than a viable business plan. And MLS needs a business plan.
As long as a Steven Gerrard turns up and fills the stands, despite being so far removed from his peak that an MLS journeyman like Baggio Husidic looks like a better option, that’s the direction the league will be forced to take.
Instead, do yourself and domestic American soccer a favour: tune in to a few FC Dallas games. If you’re in the vicinity and don’t usually make the effort, head to Frisco and attend some games.
Even if the team and its style still isn’t up to your usual standards, think of it as a vote for a team doing everything it can to move US soccer in the right direction.