Ahhh, the magic of MLS. The alchemy of the United States’ professional soccer league remains an elusive beast. While most observers would agree that the league’s play has improved dramatically during its existence (one could argue that it’s the equivalent of the Mexican league though admittedly it remains a tenuous argument and really few defenders in the MLS meg opposing forwards in their own defensive third so maybe the MLS still has a way to go), its skill level remains, well frequently uninspiring. At least in its current incarnation the league provides a medium for developing American talent, even if one gets the sneaking suspicion that Landon Donovan and others like him would benefit from more European or English competition (to Dononvan’s credit his brief time in Everton was very fruitful and proved Donovan could compete at the level of the premiership).
Still, even if play has improved, how much has the fan experience benefited? Hard to say. Like most things in life, it seems to depend on where you are and the local demography. For example, take all the recent hoopla over the Portland, Vancouver and Seattle franchises. Chris Ryan’s recent article on grantland.com provides a fine example. The rivalry that has emerged between the neophyte sides of Seattle and Portland serve as the best stories out of an MLS summer overshadowed by the Women’s World Cup (and the glorious insouciance of Hope “Han” Solo). Between the natural rivalry that exists between the jewels of the Pac Northwest and the established histories of both clubs (The Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders were both established A League franchises and the two cities had an NASL rivalry as the aforementioned Ryan points out.), it should probably not surprise anyone that the two franchises have done so well. Moreover, their natural rivalry outside of soccer, such as the once famous Sonics-Blazers battles symbolizes the kind of excitement that has emerged around soccer fixtures in the region. One need only look to IFC’s hysterical Portlandia for further evidence of the Pac Northwest blood feud.
The hipster aesthetic probably doesn’t hurt either, after all, even though Grizzly Bear Blitzen Trapper Sleater Kinney (ooh I think I dated myself on that last one) lovin’ bohemian might eschew more traditional sports, soccer retains some kind of alternative credibility in America. Granted, it boggles the mind that a predominantly white suburban sport (on American shores that is) still harbors an alternative identity, but its cosmopolitan international nature seems to mystify the fixed bike gauged pierced afficianados of the American Pacific Northwest.
Still other more tangible reasons also exist. First, both cities have soccer dedicated stadiums. Having watched the then A League Timbers compete at JELD-WEN Field downtown in the early aughts, I can personally attest to the stadium’s glorious intimacy (and kickin’ craft beer menu). The stadium’s proximity to the Portland skyline certainly helps and its easy accessibility via bike and light rail servers as further benefit. Second, both care about presentation and creating excitement. Ryan does a great job getting at this point from the fan’s appropriation of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” (“I am an Oregonian”) to the local food options to the Timbers mascot Timber Joey, who yes, does chainsaw lumber after goals.
Ok, so we can all agree that the I-5 corridor represents MLS’ best angels. What of its more traditional powers, say the once mighty D.C. United. D.C. United played in the first four MLS finals, winning three of them and the metropolitan region’s large immigrant population seemed perched to help make it as popular as the Portland and Seattle franchises appear to be today. Yet, as I can attest after having attended, a July match against the Philadelphia Union, DC matches are deathly dull.
What explains the sheer lack of excitement at a D.C. United match? First, RFK is a cacophonous mess that no MLS team could ever hope to fill. While clearly, dedicated fan sections exist around the midfield area, other areas of the stadium ring with the sound of boredom. Despite valiant efforts by D.C. faithful at midfield, the effect is like watching a really anti-climatic peace protest from an office tower. Yeah, people are excited and there’s smoke but you can’t really hear it, you don’t really care, and you know we’re going to war anyway so fuck it. The site of thousands of empty seats ringing the stadium does little to give off any sense that the game means anything. The two girls screaming like banshees for the Union players were the sole source of intrigue for me i.e. would I lose my hearing or my mind? (Kudos to them however for at least expressing some interest, it was more than I could do and I played soccer at the collegiate level.)
Another problem lies with the presentation. If Portland goes out of its way to provide some sense of spectacle, D.C. doesn’t or can’t. Granted, drawing one’s attention away from the emptiness of RFK is no small feat, but youth soccer matches at half time, while a thrill for those involved, fail to entertain the average fan. Will the under 13’s from Alexandria dominate their counterparts from Tyson Corners? uhh, maybe? No mascots roam the sidelines with chainsaws. Even sadder, when a roaming group of teenage employs “shot” t-shirts into the crowd they didn’t even have one of those cool guns, instead they had some bastardized sling shot. I’m sorry plunk down some cash for the shirt gun that I’ve enjoyed endlessly at NBA games. In general one gets the sense everyone is biding their time on a Saturday evening hoping the game might tire out their kids so that Mom and Dad can enjoy some “alone” time. I mean even D.C. United adverts around the city feature former player now coach Ben Olsen, who yes was good, but really who cares?
In the end, it may come down to a very simple factor, one that franchises like D.C. can do little about: level of play. Bill Simmons has noted on numerous occasions that Americans will never watch MLS as long as they can catch Premiership matches on ESPN or FSC. Count me as one of those heathens who simply can’t abide the MLS. With the NFL lockout (recently negotiated) and an impending NBA work stoppage, I told myself and others, this would be the summer I dedicated myself to MLS. The result? I watched the Women’s World Cup, parts of the Copa America (which truthfully lacked the art of past Copas, I mean watching Paraguay battle Venezuela to a 1-0 victory on penalty kicks doesn’t exactly capture the imagination) and struggled to take in more than one televised MLS game. Of course, one of the problems here is the very tension I noted at the articles outset, while MLS has helped the US national side, most observers want the best US players to compete abroad. This makes it that much harder to build the MLS brand. It’s a tension that at the moment seems intractable.
Now in college, I used to attend Chicago Fire games at Soldier Field in Chicago. The city’s burgeoning Mexican population and long standing Polish communities leant the team some credibility. Though hardly perfect, Soldier’s Field remains world’s above RFK. Yet, were I to reside in Chicago again I would probably just plunk down extra cash for an HD TV and the local cable sports package. I’m sorry I’d rather watch Wigan v West Ham (well if West Ham hadn’t failed to avoid regulation so magnificently last season) than really anybody in the MLS. It’s a sad painful truth that frankly I don’t know what MLS can do about. Now maybe if the MLS bought a shitload of those shirt launchers …