Major League Soccer foolishly ignores the sport's American history.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 17 2010 10:19 AM

Passing on the Past

Major League Soccer foolishly ignores the sport's American history.

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And yet, for a country that never fully embraced the game, the United States has a fantastically rich and varied soccer history. Soccer was played here as early as the 1860s—American football partly grew out of it—and threatened to become a major sport in the early 20th century, when basketball was still a barnstorming oddity. (The first basketballs, in fact, were soccer balls.) Cities from Chicago to St. Louis to Boston had professional teams, leagues, intra-city rivalries, and local stars. The country's oldest competition, the U.S. Open Cup, has been running since 1914. Archie Stark, who played for Bethlehem Steel in the 1920s, was one of the greatest pure scorers of his day, in any country. Behind stars like Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude, Team USA finished third at the first World Cup, and beat England in 1950 in what's widely seen as the biggest upset in World Cup history. In the 1970s, before it imploded under the weight of its colossal man-perms, the NASL featured some of the best players of all time: Johan Cruyff, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer. Pelé played his last competitive games here.

If this were baseball, say, or NCAA basketball, we wouldn't be able to watch a game without being folded up in all this velvety history. Halftime segments would trot out wry old men to reminisce about the day Mervyn Cawston beat Pelé in New York. Commercials from league sponsors would unspool tinkly piano rolls while grainy black-and-white footage showed Gaetjens scoring in Brazil. The championship game would be played for the Patenaude Cup. Sure, the nostalgia trips wouldn't be a direct path to revenue. But these nods to history wouldn't have to replace MLS's current stars-on-magazines approach. Every sports league markets its best players. Most leagues are also savvy enough to make their games feel important even when the stars aren't playing.

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At his State of the League press conference on Tuesday, Garber was asked whether a recent influx of teams with NASL heritage, like the Timbers and the Seattle Sounders, meant the league was softening its aversion to its precursor. (There's also a reconstituted NASL in the ether; it's currently awaiting sanctioning as the nation's second-tier league.) His answer studiously avoided all mention of history, while dwelling on the idea that "every team creates their brand vision." The notion that teams are created by time and by their fans' imaginations, or by anything that isn't subsumed under the term "brand vision," had no place in this particular conference call.                                                                   

MLS seems most comfortable operating in a vacuum, and it's too bad. The league has improved in so many ways—the quality of play is rising, the finances are leveling out, the stadiums are getting better—that it shouldn't miss the opportunity to tell the story of American soccer in a way that places those gains within a larger sports tradition. This MLS final could be a terrific game; Dallas midfielder David Ferreira is looking stupendously nifty, while Colorado strikers Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are among the best in the league. But if MLS ever wants its crowning game to have the same significance as the finals of other leagues, it should embrace a few things that happened before Preki walked the Earth.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.