While it most certainly was not the first, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch set the tone for the soccer fan autobiography. Launching him to fame (and gaining Arsenal two fans in my household), the famous books details the passion and heartbreak of being an Arsenal fan. Since its publication in 1992, it has launched many imitators as other authors have turned their own soccer experiences into compelling (or not so compelling) novels. For the American fan/author, the field is more open, as unlike their European counterparts most Americans can write about overcoming the inbred American hatred of soccer to embrace the sport. As I write this, I can see two or three of those exact kinds of books on my shelf.
Nathan Nipper approaches this from a slightly different perspective. He’s always been a soccer fan, actually experiencing the game on three different continents growing up. As the sport became more visible in the U.S., he did as many American soccer fans did and latched on to an EPL team (sadly Chelsea). His first book, Dallas ‘Til I Cry, is his conversion story to MLS. Specifically, he writes about taking up the sport in 2013 by buying FC Dallas season tickets (he lives in Texas) and following the team throughout the year. In case last year is a distant memory, the Hoops were quite bad in 2013 so the experience, on one level, was depressing. On another, however, Nipper learns the joys of American professional soccer (more on this in a moment).
Readers looking for the artistic prose of Nick Hornby will be disappointed by this book. Nipper is a good writer, but his writing lacks the emotional draw that grabs a reader and brings them on a journey. The stories are relayed straightforward and he describes his emotions throughout. That’s the best you can get – you read it but don’t feel it.
That said, not every book needs to be an attempt to recreate Eat Pray Love and I am actually glad this book doesn’t. Nipper knows a little about MLS so he is not coming into this experience cold, but he does get to see MLS 3.0 in its infancy from a more unbiased perspective. I also admire that fact that he does not attach himself to Seattle or Portland because of the fan passion or their winning ways but follows the home team.
Where I found the best value in this book is his keen observations about the game and where it stands not only in the U.S. but internationally. He doesn’t use many words to describe it, but he nails what MLS is today, what it is doing right, and what it is doing wrong. In particular, I was impressed with his descriptions of the lack of authentic culture in MLS. Speaking about the “scarfing” ceremony outside Toyota Park, he notes the lack of other authentic traditions in an 18-year-old league: “Uniqueness, whether it is traditions or even team jerseys, seems largely missing from MLS. It would be nice to see MLS clubs allowed to exist and develop a bit more organically because the league is quite homogeneous… everything is a little too cookie cutter corporate with MLS”. Later he expands on this when talking about the sterile atmosphere of Toyota Park: “a big part of the problem is one of the things that make live sports so fun is the communal experience, being for something with so many other people”.
So why does he like going to the games? A big reason that connected with me was the reason I attended so many DCU games this year – kids. Something about bringing your children to a professional soccer match is magical, and as he talked about the difference experiences of bringing each of his kids to a match, I got it and I got MLS. Here is an area MLS misses; it claims to be creating an authentic soccer culture in the U.S. by emulating other U.S. sports, but by allowing clubs to reflect their local communities, kids grow up knowing the local MLS team (if they’re lucky enough to have one) and making it part of their own identity, like kids in Liverpool knowing the words to an American show tune.
I think his best line is one he uses to end a chapter on a game where there was endemic diving and cynical fouling, something MLS is known for. Nipper rightly condemns the league for unintentionally allowing this play and how it drives away many potential fans: “for all its global aspirations, MLS must attract American soccer fans first.” Here he nails it and here is why this book is a worthwhile read. Anyone picking it up expecting it to be “Fever Pitch, Texas-style” will be sorely disappointed. But if you read it and recognize that it is more of a fair-handed analysis of MLS 3.0, you will find it an excellent read and a worthwhile few hours.
Order the book via Amazon or other fine booksellers.
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