The sport of soccer has a long and volatile history in the United States. There have been both dizzying highs and apocalyptic lows over the past century-plus. Our domestic cup is 110 years old, one of the oldest competitions of its kind in the world. But we’ve also seen countless leagues and clubs come and go. No professional club has operated continuously further back than the 1980s. And part of the reason that the game has struggled could be that American soccer has never truly belonged to the fans.
I’m not just speaking in terms of true ownership – member-run teams or fans being able to purchase shares. Even in just the sense of community and the working-class roots of the game. We don’t even have that foundation to build on. Or where we actually do, we refuse to build on it.
Many early American clubs were either works teams – factory employees and the like. Others were clubs made up of ethnic immigrant communities. But this was never nurtured, the support was never there to allow it to be sustainable, flourish, and thrive. That’s because almost from day one, soccer has been viewed as a business opportunity and not a community asset.
In fact, the first organized soccer league in the USA, the American League of Professional Football (launched in 1894), was created as a date filler by National League baseball owners to utilize their stadiums in the winter off-season. The following century was marked by various levels of infighting, with independent league entities battling over teams, venues, markets, and money.
Some supporters in other countries are “against modern football” – the excessive corporatization and greed that has engrained itself into the highest levels of the game. But here in the USA, it’s accepted. It has always been “modern football” here.
Cash over community
At the earliest opportunity, those in charge of sports in the USA have had dollar signs in their eyes. “How can we make a buck off of this?”
For American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, the growth and money came quickly (to varying degrees). By the mid-late 20th century, owning a franchise in any of the “Big 4” pro leagues was almost certainly a profitable endeavor in and of itself.
But not so for American soccer. The world’s game has always been playing catchup in the USA. As various leagues floundered in the early days, and “SoccerWarz” took its toll, the early popularity of the sport waned significantly. Subsequent leagues and clubs rarely had the patience and commitment to let the sport grow organically. Instead, banking on the perpetual theory that “soccer is the next big thing in America,” outfits like the NASL recklessly splashed cash around to try and make a dent in the crowded sports marketplace. These upfront investments have never really come with a decent return. And it has often led to teams and leagues disappearing almost as quickly as they came.
The one time, so far, a soccer entity has proven to have any staying power is Major League Soccer. But even MLS was nearly also a flash in the pan. If not for the divine benevolence of a trio of billionaires who propped things up for many years, MLS could be a distant memory today. The massive amount of money poured into the league by those owners – and subsequent others who’ve paid absurd expansion fees over the years – now have the entire pyramid beholden to the interests of a select few.
But again that fits right in with the broader American sports scene.
Business metrics matter more than the game on the field
Market size restrictions and a lack of promotion and relegation keep smaller towns from ever having a chance to play in the top leagues. Lower division sports clubs are mostly minor league outfits serving the interests of a parent team hundreds of miles away.
Teams can be relocated at the drop of a hat and often take with them identities and histories that were cultivated in an entirely different place. Recent examples are the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes or NFL’s Tennesee Titans wearing, and selling and profiting from, uniforms from communities they abandoned. To its credit, MLS got this right when San Jose moved to Houston. The new side was treated as an expansion team with the history and name staying in California. But the league also shut down its original Floridian clubs in the early 2000s, while the rest of the league, also struggling at the time, got to live on. Later they attempted to sneakily move the Columbus Crew to Austin, TX. All the while enticing nearby San Antonio with (unrealistic) hopes of getting a team.
Speaking of Columbus, that’s a club that, while it survived, was one of many that has been subject to an unpopular rebranding. Which of course was crafted with no consultation from fans.
Teams owned by the ultra-wealthy often leech tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in public money to build facilities and profit from them. If not getting direct funding, they can find creative workarounds, like David Beckham’s Inter Miami. That organization pays the City of Fort Lauderdale only one dollar per year in exchange for what is effectively total commercial control of city-owned land in a deal lasting five decades.
Sleazy American soccer practices and behavior
Specifically in American soccer, leagues poach clubs from other leagues, creating instability and disruption in the system. MLS has picked off teams from USL and NASL. NASL split off from USL. Then several sides defected back to USL and the NASL died. USL then dropped a League One team in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They’d go head to head with the popular existing amateur club Chattanooga FC, even taking some of their staff. Now CFC has moved from NISA to MLS NEXT Pro, prohibited from joining USL thanks to territorial exclusivity given to the competing team.
It’s important to note that fan or community majority ownership of teams is specifically prohibited in the setups of major league sports in the United States. And in soccer, this is banned at all professional levels, not just MLS.
Only the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who were grandfathered in, are allowed this perfectly viable ownership setup.
Does money have a place in the game? Of course. It takes a lot of funding to operate a professional club. But there has to be a better way than the billionaire-backed, profit-driven, system we too often celebrate.
But for now, if you have a club in any sport, if you bleed their colors, don’t take it for granted. Because at any moment, those colors could completely change. The name could change to advertise an energy drink. They could move somewhere else. Or they might cease to exist entirely.
And at the end of the day, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
…or is there?
Ok, so maybe you’re stubborn like me. You’re depressed when looking at the state of the game but just can’t abandon it, and want to do something to make a positive difference. Fight the powers that be. Stay engaged with soccer but refuse to cooperate with, and maybe throw a wrench or two in, the ominous corporate mechanisms behind the curtain. Here are a few things you can consider.
Get educated and be an advocate for change
Think some of the ways that American soccer works are backward? Really dig in, learn the details (like the Professional League Standards), and be a conversation starter. Online, at the pub, or in the stands, you can help spread the word and shape opinions. But don’t be a combative, tinfoil-hat person. Keep it civil, and bring a reasonable argument to the discussion.
Whether it’s supporting promotion and relegation, allowing fan ownership, getting rid of territorial exclusivity, whatever – more voices in the discussion can make the evolution of the game possible.
Get in the eyes and ears of those in charge
Don’t stop at your buddies and fellow supporters. Let the folks at your club know about it, too. It could be a sign or song at a match, or an email, or a tweet (or whatever it’s called now). The people running teams, leagues, and US Soccer itself are the ones who at the end of the day decide how things operate. But they have to be pushed in the right direction.
Beyond wider-scale issues, this is incredibly important in general. Without constant input and pressure from fans, clubs can go sideways. I mentioned the Crew before, and a massive fan effort not only in Columbus but around the US Soccer community kept the team in Ohio. But just a few seasons later, the new owners went off and tried to change the name of the club. Being vocal and vigilant – even when things seem to be going well – can help keep the thing you love, well, the thing you love.
Support the grassroots
This is a huge country. We have far, far fewer professional clubs operating here than in other areas in the world of similar geographical size. But the game exists beyond the flashy lights of the professional game.
A vibrant “non-league” community exists around the USA. There are historic amateur outfits that have been around longer than any pro club in America. Your town probably has at least one or two sides in a regional or local league. Go check them out – most of the time it won’t even cost you anything. The true soul of the game is alive and well at that level. It’s not about big TV deals, or sponsors, or catching a glimpse of a guy who used to play with Barcelona or Manchester.
You could even become an owner! While supporter ownership is not allowed in the professional game in the USA, it can, and has, been done in the lower tiers. Clubs like San Francisco City FC and Lansing Common FC offer affordable memberships and cool swag. You can even be involved if you live across the country.
Start your own club
Does nothing that already exists feel like quite the right fit for you? Maybe your local club disappeared when the owner bailed or a higher league moved into town. You can always do it yourself!
Most areas have a local or regional league where costs are reasonable. With a few friends plus dedicated volunteers, and a little luck, you can do it. I know from experience because we did just that in 2017 down in Fort Lauderdale. It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work out. In our case, I had to move out of town and our side, Himmarshee FC, is sadly very likely on permanent hiatus.
But the experience can be fun, exciting, and immensely rewarding. You make new connections and friendships. You can have a blast (some of our moments with that shoestring budget amateur team will stick with me forever – Florida Gold Coast League champs baby!). And most of all, you can actually make a difference – on and off the field. Our club gave opportunities to guys who otherwise would not have been playing competitively. And we helped a variety of charitable causes over the years.
So maybe it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and downtrodden, especially if your personal connection to the game has left you heartbroken (the club has folded, etc.) or the big business aspect of things just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
But we can still find ways to find joy and passion in the game as it exists now while working towards a better future.
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