The American soccer sphere has been abuzz these last couple of days thanks to a question that first popped up on Alexi Lalas’s Twitter feed:
Last night this was discussed: If you live in the U.S., can you call yourself a “soccer fan” even if you don’t support @MLS?
The question gets a thorough working over in an article posted on ESPN FC yesterday.
I fear this barb is aimed at me, and at fans like me, because we are not appropriately MLS-centric. The fact is that a lot of American football fans pay far more attention to bigger leagues abroad. The English Premiership is the big dog, owing to the fact that it’s the best league in the world, period. Other popular leagues include Spain (La Liga features two of the world’s great clubs in Barcelona and Real Madrid), Italy (Serie A), Germany (the Bundesliga would be bigger if it had a better broadcast deal over here) and Mexico (which feeds on our country’s booming Mexican-American population).
The quality of MLS play is certainly getting better with each passing year, and more and more players are making the leap to bigger leagues in Europe. Every time Clint Dempsey scores for Spurs, every time Jozy Altidore adds to his tally in Holland, every time a Brek Shea or Kei Kamara prove they belong in the Premiership, international regard for America and MLS ratchets up another notch. Commissioner Don Garber recently lamented that “respect for Major League Soccer is greater abroad than it is among the soccer community in the United States.”
Whether Lalas is legitimately pissed off or is just trying to motivate American fans, he’s stomping hard.
Hypocrisy is a constant thread through many American soccer fans’ attitudes,” he said. “I can’t make people follow MLS but I can point out their hypocrisy. If they do want to call themselves American soccer fans and support the national team, I hope that part of them wants the sport to succeed in the United States, and for that to happen, they have to be part of solution by supporting local soccer.
He goes on to argue that MLS is superior to much of what we consider elite elsewhere (an interesting proposition, to be sure) and says that it’s the most competitive league in the world. Well, maybe. A salary cap will create competition and parity, if not always excellence. A lot of teams go into the season thinking they have a chance to win it all. And they do, because the MLS is typical of American sports leagues. The regular season is next to meaningless, serving no purpose other than to generate revenue and seed a playoff system that all too often hands the big trophy at the end to a club that scuffed its way through the season and barely made it into the dance. In Europe if you win the regular season, you’re the champion. Over here, if you’re the best team over the course of the full 35 or so games, you get the opportunity to be upset in the first round and watch the rest of the playoffs on TV.
So “competitive” isn’t necessarily the ultimate in criteria. Just saying.
Here’s my issue. I do support MLS. I watch the games on TV (last weekend I caught the season opener for my wretched Rapids and also the Portland/NY match, which was exciting as hell; as I type I’m halfway watching the New England/Chicago match). I go to the occasional game here, as well. I even watch CONCACAF Champions League matches featuring MLS teams that I hate vs. Central American sides I’ve barely heard of.
The tone of the ESPN article makes clear, though, that isn’t good enough. By their reckoning, I’m clearly being dumped into the category of “Euro snob.” Earlier today I caught the end of the Manchester City/Barnsley FA Cup tie. Later I watched a replay of today’s Norwich/Southampton match followed by the West Brom/Swansea rerun. I routinely get up on Saturday and Sunday mornings so as to catch Chelsea matches that start as early as 5am. Heck, I got up and drove to Boulder for a 3:30am kick in the Club World Cup a few months ago. I never miss a match (our supporters club gets together at the British Bulldog, which opens for the games, no matter what time they’re on), and last summer a group of us went to Seattle to see the Blues playing the Sounders in their annual pre-season tour.
Read those last two paragraphs again and answer me this: if I’m not a soccer fan, then what am I?
I understand wanting the US game to thrive – I want that, too. Not long ago I even wrote a five-part series on why soccer will eventually be bigger than American football here in the US. MLS believes it can be one of the top leagues in the world within 10 years, and while I think that’s ambitious, nothing would make me happier. (I also hope that the Rapids are good by then.)
I appreciate the passion of guys like Alexi Lalas, who was one of my favorites when he was a player and whom I continue to enjoy as an analyst and a promoter. I also appreciate how agitating and provoking in articles like the ESPN FC piece can make a point and draw attention to your cause.
That said, bite me. Suggesting that I’m not a soccer fan if I don’t support MLS above all other leagues is like saying I’m not a basketball fan if I prefer the NBA to Division III.
So yes, I can call myself a soccer fan. If you have a problem with that, then you’re probably something of a wanker.