Let me be the first to admit that objective journalism in the world of US soccer is difficult. Those who love the sport in this country and want to see it succeed tend to become cheerleaders for the US men’s and women’s national teams as well as the nation’s top professional league, Major League Soccer. The most professional and seasoned of soccer journalists, people such as Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus and Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, are excellent at separating emotion from analysis but others aren’t so good at it. Most of these writers are not at mainstream publications but are found in the blogosphere and are active on Twitter.
Having served as the Communications Director for the United States second tier league, NASL, I learned how hard it is to change the minds of many who march in lockstep with the thinking in Major League Soccer. That is not to say some deference needs to be paid to our major league here in the States. Those who have invested millions in the game in the United States assumed great risks and deserve some protection in my mind from the forces which are so hostile to the sport. Those forces include both traditional fans of American sports and the so-called “eurosnobs” who do not give local soccer a chance, instead dismissing virtually anything related to MLS or lower divisions.
The desire by some writers in the United States to protect and promote Major League Soccer has taken some interesting turns in recent months. Most Designated Player (DP) signings in MLS are met by massive fanfare and chest-pounding from many of the pro-MLS bloggers. Signings of journeyman players like Robbie Keane were treated as massive coups for the league and the signing of genuine stars even if long past their prime like Kaka, a player unable to contribute meaningfully in Europe any longer, are seen as indications that MLS is a genuine world power.
With this is the established standard, I believed we would see a great deal of more excitement in the US soccer press when Raul, one of the greatest players in the history of arguably the world’s biggest club, signed in this country. However, Raul’s decision to join the New York Cosmos, playing the second-tier of American soccer, was viewed in many domestic quarters as the signing of a washed-up player. I find that ironic because Raul was leading Schalke to the UEFA Champions League semifinals around the same time Kaka couldn’t get a meaningful game at Real Madrid and Robbie Keane was being loaned out to West Ham United after being unable to secure a regular spot at Spurs.
Having worked at NASL, this was simply another example of the region’s second-tier league being ignored or ridiculed in portions of the US soccer press. Raul’s signing is a big deal however you cut it. Bitterness about the Real Madrid legend not signing in MLS when it appeared he might in 2010 could have been part of the driver of the negative coverage. But so could NASL’s attitude toward MLS, which has become in many ways callous. The second-tier league has made noises about wanting to be viewed on the same plain as MLS and as much of a proponent I am of NASL, the gap between the two leagues from a business and marketing standpoint is similar to the gap between the Premier League and League 1 in England. Some in the NASL hierarchy attempt to suspend reality when looking at the domestic soccer landscape and that in turn has created a backlash perhaps justifiably among bloggers who cover and support MLS. Still though, any aura of objectivity often goes out the window with these bloggers as the Raul coverage demonstrated.
I was heartened to see Ian Joy of beIN SPORTS make an appearance on the Keys and Gray show last week. Host Richard Keys asked Joy about the frenzy the US seemed to be whipped into about the news that Frank Lampard is staying at Manchester City for now instead of joining sister club New York City FC in January which had been previously announced. Joy immediately implied that the controversy was largely part of a domestic media narrative. As long-time readers of this site will recall, back in the days when I towed the line with MLS more carefully, I took similar shots at David Beckham and AC Milan when it appeared that the former England captain was disrespecting the LA Galaxy and the league. But in time, you come to appreciate that high-level players want to perform on the biggest stage as long as possible. While the Lampard situation is uncomfortable for most parties, the desire of the player to finish the season in Manchester where he has a chance at one last piece of domestic glory has to be respected and understood.
Joy’s comments seemed to catch Keys and Gray off guard. Keys, the veteran presenter that he is, continued on the theme and Joy held his ground well for the remainder of the interview. The takeaway was simple. While the Lampard situation isn’t ideal, the fury that has been generated is largely manufactured and the by-product of a media that is very protective of Major League Soccer.
For years, many domestic writers pushed a simple narrative: What is good for MLS is good for US Soccer. US Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann began to challenge that prevailing attitude recently, resulting in a vibrant discussion. In the last year, more dissent than ever among writers at the big publications has occurred from the MLS orthodoxy. I have noticed pro-MLS bloggers becoming more and more defensive of the league and its virtues.
This is not to claim everything about MLS is negative or needs mocking. Fans of other leagues often critique some elements of MLS’ unique structure like the “Discovery Player” rule. I believe MLS has it right with this specific rule that allows clubs in MLS to scout the world to find talent, often below the radar. The rule protects clubs who invest resources trying to discover players abroad and attempt to bring them to North America. MLS’ business model, whether you like it or not, has provided the most stability a top division in this region has ever enjoyed. The business model is so successful that other leagues around the globe are interested in incorporating elements in it to mitigate risks for investors.
For the United States to truly evolve as a great soccer playing nation, changes need to be made in the way news is reported and digested. Those changes are happening all too slowly for a country that is becoming as obsessive about the beautiful game as the rest of the world.
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