Having cut the cable cord last year, I need to hit the bars anytime I want to catch a Timbers game live. Also significant: I live in Portland’s suburbs – e.g. out where soccer ain’t gentry never mind royalty. That said, a fellow traveler was tending bar at my usual spot and he booted basketball to put on Portland v. Philly. And with sound. This almost never happens.
A couple sat next to me during Saturday’s game. Being there for the basketball, they bitched a little about soccer as the game started. When they sprinkled in some “what the hell is going” questions, I answered them and we got to talking. Their ignorance of the game rivaled their hostility to it, but they asked and listened patiently when I answered. (That he wanted to stay out a bit longer almost certainly sharpened his interest (his wife wanted to sleep.)) I even took a little time to talk about some of MLS’s weirdness and weaknesses. Because it has them.
That conversation came back to me as I read Billy Haisley’s pro-soccer/anti-MLS oddity on Deadspin. He complained everything from MLS’s essential/comparative shittiness to the proselytizing fervor of its fans, baiting a hook for those same fans with a big, fucking wet worm.
A response came not from a fan, but a former MLS player, Bobby Warshaw. It’s a smart response and he makes some novel points – most notably the case in favor of MLS’s quirky rules – but he hit a lot of the same points that crossed my mind as I read Haisley’s piece. He hit them well, so do read it if you haven’t. I have a couple elaborations to add…just takes a minute…
“Watch the better product,” Haisley tells us, “till MLS gets good enough to justify your eyeball’s attention.” He frames it as an argument for aesthetics and free-market choice, even dressed up with some crap about Hondas and Chevrolets. But that’s an inapt analogy on a couple levels. Cars can stay in, but the better comparison goes back to the state of the auto industry in the U.S. before Japanese competition. Let the American Big Three stand in for Europe’s wealth-saturated elite and let every other club, in Europe and around the world, suck eggs.
Haisley’s article focuses on MLS, but, as Warshaw notes, the cost/quality problems neither start nor end in the States. We already know what a free market in transfers and salaries looks like thanks to the huge live experiment that runs annually in Europe – e.g. unbalanced leagues where teams like West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace get the shit kicked out of them every week by the same tiny group of clubs – e.g. Chelsea, Mancheser United, Arsenal. Sure, a sugar daddy adopts a club here and there – that’s how not just Manchester City, but Chelsea got to where the are today – but the rest play for nothing more than the privilege of having their asses handed to them by the same several teams the following season. Even Tottenham and Liverpool live in this world.
Returning to MLS, Haisley complains about how MLS fans can’t see one-touch soccer (wrong; it’s just not as often), mazy runs (see: Alexander, Eric*), or even an intentional, competent first touch (just…straight-up bullshit; someone sit this man in front of highlights and have him explain himself). He’s right about MLS’s problems with quality, but he’s also pointing a finger where he should be sweeping his hand: as noted above, consistent quality gets scarcer with every step down the table in just about any European top flight. Players who show promise don’t stick around Europe’s smaller stages anymore than they’ll come to MLS: the big clubs will scoop him up, sometimes in months, but almost always within a year or two.
(* Yeah, I mean Eric Alexander, journeyman clogger: he “shredded” a defense just last season, not as gracefully as Lionel Messi, but that only heightens to the sheer mind-fucking delight of the moment.)
That’s actually where Haisley really takes full leave from reality: all those smaller clubs operate within the “specific cultural history” of Europe. They play the game that most people talk about around water-cooler, they get the entertainment dollars, and TV contracts can generate real revenue (bet the sharing is totes equal!). This is where the best players are born and bred…yet even with those built-in cultural advantages, the overwhelming majority of clubs feed on hind tit. They cannot compete with the big clubs from the same country financially, aesthetically, or globally. It follows from his argument that none of these clubs deserve our attention. Our eyes and dollars should remain worshipfully fixed on the elite – e.g. the modest handful of Arsenals and Barcelonas. And so their advantage grows. Which is precisely what it does today. It’s a great world for some.
With all that in mind, it’s just…bizarre to argue that MLS can just wave some cash and “get better.” Arcane rules are holding back the league? Inelegant players? Bullshit. How about competing not just financially but culturally with established American big sports that consume American’s recreational dollars, TV revenue, and even public resources? This is just one reason why – one – that it took MLS over a decade before it didn’t have to pay for its air-time (yeah, I remember the first time MLS picked up a television contract that actually gave the league money). True, MLS owners are millionaires, even billionaires, men and consortia who absolutely could throw more money at the game. All the same, would you throw Europe-elite-level cash at MLS clubs given the realities of the American entertainment and media market?
It’s a shame because there’s a fairly clever article in there. True believers do kinda suck and elements of MLS fan culture are pretty goddamn embarrassing (that said, some of its quite nice). It’s a free country, thank god, so Haisley can watch what he wants. And, more fortunately still, we’re not all stuck watching football. If Europe wins in the long-run and MLS dies as a result, so be it. I’ll go back to watching Europe. Maybe I’ll even get back over there someday…
But that brings me back to that conversation at the bar on Saturday – which is important because it contains something that Haisley misses. MLS probably can’t win over the Euro-snobs. It’s reaching a point where it doesn’t need to. I didn’t hard sell those two on MLS; I just talked to them about soccer as a sport. MLS happened to be what’s on and that was due to another happy accident – e.g. the presence of a bartender who was more curious about what the local soccer team was doing than what was going on in college hoops.
That same thing is happening all across Portland. People care about the team, they’re fascinated by the Timbers Army, and all my neighbors, people who didn’t even know the team existed last year, are stocking up on Timbers gear. And on and on it goes. If the game’s going grow at all, it’s likely to grow up without the snobs. They’ll walk into a culture that they won’t recognize as inauthentic; they’ll just know they have a neighbor who goes to games and seems to like it, or maybe that’s what they saw last time they went to the bar.
That’s how the game is going to grow here. It’s going to take time and money, but time is what’s going to decide it. Haisley might catch that if he took his eyes away from Europe for a minute.