American Soccer Fans: United Like Never Before
It is a common perception that America’s football loving populace is divided three ways- European football lovers, fans of the American game and Latin futbol fans. But the truth is the subdivisions within these groups are enormous.
Let’s take the fan of the American game for example. MLS has sold itself as the all encompassing football product for the United States. Many MLS fans simply assumed for years that if you don’t support or watch MLS you don’t support the sport on the localized level. You were labeled a “eurosnob or mexisnob.” But in fact this is not true in anyway, and this myth was created more out of the marketing prowess of Major League Soccer and the follower nature of many non critical MLS fans.
Many fans and supporters of the American game work at the grassroots level in youth soccer, or with local amateur and professional sides. These people are often times several steps removed from MLS and for many years didn’t follow the league closely. This too was a pity as we have only one FIFA sanctioned first division in this country and if the game is to succeed MLS has to be the leader.
On the flip side many MLS fans behave as if whatever the number of MLS “franchises” is at a given time (15 now, 12 in 2005/06, 18 in 2011) are the number of truly professional outfits playing football north of the Rio Grande. These fans take a very American pro sports view of things, living in a self contained bubble where only their league matters and the teams in their league truly exist.
For these fans USL did not exist except maybe one day a year during an Open Cup third round match. Many of these people expressed shock and horror when USL-1 sides outplayed MLS sides in the recently completed CONCACAF Champions League.
A third group exists: those who live in A-League/D-3 , now USL-1 or USL-2 cities who only pay passing interest to MLS and seem to resent that their markets and teams aren’t deemed MLS “worthy.” These fans follow USL the best they can and also tend to be in a bubble like the MLS fans described above. I’ve had many a USL fan tell me in the past when discussing the USMNT “Oh I don’t know that guy because he plays in MLS,” right after telling me how great some USL player is and how well Clint Dempsey is doing at Fulham.
It seems the only times these groups converge or join hands has been for big US Men’s National Team matches. But after the national team is finished with their match or tournament everyone returns to their bubble.
Personally, I’ve been both in the MLS bubble in the late 90s, and then the USL-1 bubble in 2005 and 2006 while following European football and paying passing interest to MLS. But both times I was in a bubble, my bubble burst so to speak.
In the late 1990s MLS, I paid not even passing interest to the A-League until seeing Rochester take down one MLS side after another in the Open Cup. From that point on I followed the A-League as closely as I could. In 2006, after the world cup failure I realize simply watching a second division in my country and European football had contributed to the downfall. Showing contempt for Bruce Arena’s use of MLS based players as I did in the lead up to the World Cup and after had been snobbish and wrong of me.
I quit MLS in 2005 because the quality of play was unwatchable and the admission of Chivas USA had angered me not because we had a Mexican owned side in the league but because they put out such a bad product. In my view they showed a total disrespect for the American game by doing so. I was also disgusted in SUM’s continued promotion of the Mexican National Team on American soil, and felt that MLS was working against the USMNT in clever ways. I was scared about the prospect of Superliga which was discussed in 2005 and launched in 2006/07. I privately hoped FIFA would tell the FMF and MLS that they could not hold such an event. I was wrong at the time on all counts and will plainly admit it now.
I had in 2003 and 2004 discovered PDL and began following the league through the internet and specific players I saw in person as they moved into their professional realm. Two of these players, Heath Pearce and Michael Parkhurst became well known to American soccer fans.
After the Romario mania of Miami FC wore off in the summer of 2006, I returned to MLS head first and soon thereafter launched in cooperation with Christopher Harris of EPL Talk this site and the MLS Talk podcast.
But that simply meant I was following MLS and USL’s leagues. That in no way meant I got the whole picture. More recently, I’ve discovered the USASA’s setup in mass, followed the NPSL and PCSL, observed the USSF Youth Development Academy setup and much more. I’ve realized the game in this country is a grassroots driven phenomena operating outside the umbrella or confines of typical American sport.
I am not alone in this appreciation for the game at all levels. This year I have noticed as I travel and speak to those all over the nation, more interest in the Open Cup than ever before among MLS fans, more interest in MLS among those on the grassroots, more interest in USL among everyone and more and more people embracing all the facets of the multi level American soccer pyramid.
American soccer fans have discovered for one reason or another it doesn’t simply have to be MLS to be relevant or USL to have some redeeming quality. The game in this country has grown to an unprecedented and for many unexpected level. Everyone has played their part, and many are finally escaping their self imposed fiefdoms and joining the bigger party.
America’s culture of individualism may have contributed to the fiefdoms breaking out. But today more than ever a coming together is taking place. Looking ahead I only see clear skies for the growth of the game. Obviously the performance of the US Men’s National Team is the most important factor in this continued growth, but today unlike the past it appears more and more lovers of the game are on the same page and working together and respecting one another.