Last Sunday night, with one final smolder for the cameras, David Beckham conveyed his hairstyle off the pitch and out of the MLS playoffs. The L.A. Galaxy's 3-0 loss to F.C. Dallas—a game in which Beckham's slow-wilting sprout of a ponytail was an accurate meter of his side's fortunes—deprives the competition of its most telegenic team. It also sends unheralded Dallas on to face the Colorado Rapids on Sunday in the least obviously glamorous sports final since, oh, the 2010 World Series. Instead of mashing CTRL-V on Beckham and his teammate-turned- World-Cup-hero Landon Donovan, the marketing wing of MLS now faces the task of selling a championship game contested by two teams who don't even fill their own stadiums.
This is not, to put it mildly, the league's strong suit. MLS has always been better at marketing stars than at creating meaning. From Freddy Adu to Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the league is forever unveiling the next glossy face who will finally, at last and forever, put soccer over in America. In the meantime, 17 years after MLS was founded, the league's franchises still feel like more or less interchangeable corporate entities, all with the same soft-edged logo, all playing in Pizza Hut Park.
A Super Bowl or a European Cup final contested by two lesser-known teams is still exciting, even to casual fans. That's because those playoff finals continue a tradition that's been cultivated over time. The lore of past matches—Marcus Allen needle-looping through the entire Redskins defense, Eusébio applauding Alex Stepney after Stepney blocked his would-be game-winning shot—gives them a significance that exceeds the game being contested on the field. MLS and its teams have done astoundingly little to foster those kinds of traditions, even though their fans have consistently shown that they want them.
To take just the most recent example: Earlier this year, the Portland Timbers, an expansion team slated to join the league in 2011, dumped their rugged old axe logo in favor of a streamlined, anodized, Sports 2.0 update. (While the Timbers are newcomers to MLS, the team has been around since 1975.) As it happened, the fans liked the old version. They booed the unveiling, and after sustained criticism, the Timbers re-unveiled a compromise logo that restored some of the old crest's rough edges while still, presumably, remaining palatable to whatever imaginary conference-hotel demographic the club envisions buying its T-shirts.
Those raucous, chanting fan groups that make MLS games atmospheric, even in half-empty stadiums? Team officials have confiscated their banners and told them to sit down, afraid that they'll spook soccer moms. ("Because this is soccer in America, there's this misperception that this has to be for 5-year-old kids," one thwarted die-hard complained.) The NFL champion gets a trophy named for Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach who was carried off the field after leading Green Bay to its second straight Super Bowl win. The MLS title winner gets the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, a bauble that bears the name of the conservative billionaire who owns two of the league's clubs.
Of course, the NFL is rich, popular, massively exposed, and permanently surrounded by its own fleet of dancing laser robots and Christmas-themed F-16s. For Major League Soccer, by contrast, basic financial stability isn't everything, it's the only thing; league commissioner Don Garber can't afford to take interested billionaires lightly. That's one reason why the league has focused on marketing its current stars while ignoring the past: Every previous attempt to bring a major professional soccer league to the United States ended in failure. MLS has had to build its customer base while simultaneously reassuring those customers that it's not doomed to extinction. Differentiating itself from its predecessors, especially the glitzy 1970s disco-relic of the NASL, has been a central part of its identity. (Ironically, Major League Soccer's recent emphasis on luring international stars in the twilight of their careers is reminiscent of one of the strategies that helped sink the NASL.) So has an obsessive, highly public focus on business models and paths to stability. Dallas and Colorado, the two teams that will meet in Sunday's final, have collectively undergone three major rebrandings since 2003. All of this makes sense. It just isn't a lot of fun.
When you willfully exclude everything before 1996 from your sense of American soccer history, you don't have enough history to go around. Of course, MLS fans have their own stories and heroes: Brian McBride in Chicago, say, or Ben Olsen at D.C. United. What's missing is a sense from the league that soccer has deep roots in the United States, that the game is a constituent part of the national sports psyche rather than some alien import that crashed here to annoy Jim Rome.