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