With most of MLS booming, what’s gone wrong for Chicago Fire?
The first thing to know about the Chicago Fire is that they don’t actually play in Chicago at all, but in the suburb of Bridgeview, about 12 miles from the city’s downtown area.
The second thing to know about the Chicago Fire is that they are not very good. In fact, they are very bad — the worst team in MLS last season and, increasingly, the laughing stock of the entire league.
If, in spite of this, you can still muster the courage to go watch the Fire play, you will do so in either a car or a bus. There are no other options. And so the stadium has no chance to grow or loom or do any of those other cool things stadiums can seem to do under the right circumstances. As you drive south on the IL-43, Toyota Park simply isn’t there. And then it is.
And then you are in a parking lot.
But it is important the Fire play in a football-specific stadium.
In the early years of MLS, most teams used NFL stadiums (including the Fire, who shared Soldier Field with the Chicago Bears). The facilities were good, of course, but the situation wasn’t ideal. As the league and the sport struggled to establish mainstream credibility, it didn’t help for casual observers watching on television to see four-figure crowds in massive five-figure stadiums. In the face of such an obvious visual reminder of the game’s relative unpopularity, it was hard to avoid the impression the sport was fighting a losing battle.
Besides, if MLS was ever really going to take off, the thinking was that it would have to forge its own path eventually anyway, away from the minatory presence of that other American football. This thinking seems to have been sound and MLS attendance figures have continued to grow as the number of teams playing in football-specific stadiums has increased. 14 of MLS’s 20 teams now play in such grounds and the league has never been more popular.
But of course the stadiums aren’t the only reason for MLS’s growing popularity. And it is worth noting that the league’s most well-attended side, the Seattle Sounders, play in an NFL stadium. The Sounders’ average gate this season was more than 40,000; the largest football-specific stadium in MLS is Toronto FC’s BMO Field, which holds only 30,991.
Toyota Park, meanwhile, seats a more modest 20,000. It is a nice little venue. It is comfortable. It does not feel cramped or in any way oppressive like some of those older, more storied English grounds. No buildings can be seen above the stands or even in the distance. In fact, there is no evidence of America’s third-largest city at all; just a cloudy, Midwestern sky.
The short walk to the stadium is through a gravel parking lot, past the remnants of a tailgate, some children throwing a frisbee, others kicking a football. This is a strange sight, it might occur to you, at a football match — and there does seem to be something oddly forced about it, as if they are doing it more out of some when-in-Rome sense of obligation than because they actually want to. Perhaps even as if they don’t fully know what one does with a football, at least not in the way most children around the world do, where it’s in their bones, like language or laughter. But it is easy to read too much into things here. MLS does that to you.
The Fire, bottom of MLS’s Eastern Conference standings, are playing Orlando City SC, one of the league’s new additions for the 2015 season and three places ahead of Chicago in seventh. Both teams are still technically in contention for the play-offs, but their chances are remote; this does not have the feel of a big game. It does not help that the star attraction, Orlando’s Kaká, will not be playing. The Brazilian picked up an injury on international duty a couple of weeks earlier and is out of the side.
Ten minutes before kick-off and the tailgaters and the late arrivals make their way towards the metal barriers dividing the stadium and the parking lot to have their tickets checked. The majority of fans sport some sort of Fire paraphernalia, but plenty are also wearing Messi and Ronaldo shirts. Most of them are worn by children, admittedly, but the effect is strange (indeed, the number of children itself is strange). The sense is that this is not really a crowd of Fire supporters at all or even football supporters, but something closer to football sympathisers. They go to the game for the same reason they would go to the zoo. Because it is a pleasant diversion, because it will get the kids out of the house, because what else is there to do on a Saturday afternoon?
The first glimpses of the pitch, up a steep flight of concrete steps, are as thrilling as they always are. Inside the ground, people wander slowly towards their seats, chit chat, eat. Then the opening whistle, a cheer and everyone settles in.
What is noticeable, immediately, is how little everyone is paying attention. They talk among themselves, rarely about the football, or they look at their phones. Midway through the first half, on the big screen behind the goal at the south end, there is an advertisement, broadcast over the PA system, for a lease-to-own furniture retailer. It is hard to decide what is more troubling: the advert itself or the fact such an unrecognizable brand was able to buy it.
A group of teenage boys discuss Manchester City’s loss to West Ham earlier in the day. And with the unique confidence of teenage boys talking about a subject on which they have no authority, one of them points out that West Ham are actually quite good; they beat Manchester United and Chelsea this season already. This is not true. Or at least it was not true at the time. West Ham had beaten Arsenal and Liverpool, but hadn’t played either United or Chelsea. Never mind, nobody questions him.
One block of fans, standing behind the goal at the northern Harlem end, does stand out — singing, chanting, and, as has become increasingly common in recent times, protesting. This is Section 8, the official fan group of the Chicago Fire, named after the old section in Soldier Field they used to occupy. The group, along with many Fire season ticket holders who are not members, is angry with the direction the club has been moving since 2007, when Andrew Hauptman, founder of the investment firm Andell Holdings, bought the franchise. Many of them hold black flags sporting messages for Hauptman and the rest of the Fire hierarchy.
But while Section 8 are making plenty of noise, it is never quite loud enough by itself to graduate to the level of atmosphere. It makes for a strange scene — this single block of angry noise amid the larger sea of indifference.
On the pitch, Orlando start stronger. Lining up in a 4-2-3-1, they keep some tidy possession through midfield, but it mostly falls apart in the final third. It looks, in fact, much like the team has been set up to function around a player who isn’t there. Which makes sense.
As the half progresses, the Fire look more and more dangerous in their own haphazard way. Central midfielder Michael Stephens is beginning to pull some strings. Harry Shipp, slightly ahead of him, also looks lively, while David Accam is obviously the big talent on the team, running at defenders almost every time he picks up the ball. No great chances, but there is a threat. The crowd is distracted, inattentive.
At half-time, the pitch is filled with children — ranging from the ages of about five to fifteen — participating in a couple of chaotic small-sided games. Various high-school teams, winners of this or that regional competition, are paraded on the field. A Fire-sponsored adult league in the city has its trophy ceremony at half-time. These promotional events are just a few of the many ways the Fire have tried to increase interest and attendance in recent years. It may well have increased attendance, but if there is any interest in the stadium, most of it does not appear to be directed towards the Fire.
Before the second half gets under way, there is even time for another promotional bit on the big screen, this time sponsored by the much more recognisable Dunkin’ Donuts. Cuppy Coffee races against Dashy Donut and Biggy Bagel around an animated track for the opportunity to win the crowd a free cup of coffee in participating stores. This sort of thing is standard practice at pretty much all American sporting events, with their near-constant breaks in play, but it feels out of place at a football match. It is hard not to laugh.
The second half picks up more or less where the first half left off, with the Fire on top, but unable to do much about it. As the game wears on and stretches out, Accam starts picking up the ball in slightly deeper positions. He has the mischievous look of a player trying things because he knows he can get away with them, because he knows he is just a little bit better than everyone else and in such a drab game he at least wants to have himself some fun.
Still, the Fire find a way to lose. The Orlando substitute Brek Shea beats his man on the right side before rolling a ball across the middle of the box, which Brian Róchez eventually turns in. The Fire’s midfield are caught badly behind the play, three of them arriving in the box just in time to realise it’s too late. It is an ugly goal. It is also exactly the sort of goal you expect the Fire to concede these days — late and almost comically avoidable.
There is a vague sense of disappointment in the crowd, but it is muted — the sort of reaction you’d expect from children at the zoo upon realising the lions aren’t going to wake up for them today. No real sense of anger, not even from Section 8, who became progressively quieter as the game wore on and who are less angry with the on-field performances than the off-field issues anyway. And that’s that: another week, another promising, slightly aimless, ultimately winless performance from the Fire. Time for the long drive back to the city.
For a lot of reasons, then, the Fire are not the best team on which to base any sweeping judgments about the current state of MLS. Perhaps the Sounders would be a better place to start, or the Portland Timbers, or FC Dallas. An example of what MLS can look like at its best.
But to understand the league properly, it is also necessary to examine what it looks like at its worst — and with Chivas USA now defunct, the Fire have a legitimate claim to the honour of MLS’s worst-run club.
There is also the not insignificant fact the Fire’s most devoted fans are trying to do something about that. It is a rare thing in American sports to see a fan base in public revolt against its team’s ownership; rarer still to see a sustained campaign for change. Which only makes the burgeoning “Hauptman Out” campaign, and the questions it raises for MLS, more interesting.
The fans’ grievances are straightforward enough. The Fire were one of MLS’s first two expansion teams in 1998 and won the MLS Cup and US Open Cup in their inaugural season. After going on to win four more trophies in the following eight years (one Supporters Shield and three US Open Cups), the team has won nothing since 2006.
In the eight full seasons since Hauptman bought the club, the Fire have qualified for the MLS Cup play-offs three times, but only once in the past six seasons (in 2012, when they lost to the Houston Dynamo in the first knockout round). Last season, for the second time, and the first time since 2004 (when there were only 10 teams in the league), the Fire were the worst team in MLS.
Whichever way you look at it, that is a measly return from a team in the third biggest sports market in the country — and this, really, is the heart of the issue. The Fire should be good. They should be able to attract some of the brightest talent now beginning to enter MLS. So what’s going wrong?
Well, there are the on-field problems and there are the off-field problems. And then there is the difficulty of figuring out where the one set begins and the other ends.
The received wisdom among Fire supporters is that the team’s biggest on-field problems last season were a weak defence and a lack of any clear tactical identity, which stemmed mainly from the coach Frank Yallop, who was sacked after the loss to Orlando in September. He received little sympathy.
“Sacking Yallop was 100% the right move,” said Daniel Giroux, a season-ticket holder and Section 8 member. “He was a problem. He made poor team-building decisions, did not motivate the team at all and played with the same outdated, long-ball 4-4-2 that worked for him in the early days of MLS… we need a coach who understands the league, not only how it was, but how it is now.”
Phil, another season ticket holder and one of the administrators for the Hauptman Out Facebook page, who did not want to go by his full name, holds a similar view.
“The guy was tactically inept,” he said. “He played players out of position, never had a concise plan out there and could not recognise talent to bring into the squad. Too often he would make a defensive substitution too early, park the bus and then watch the team concede.”
Pattrick Stanton, a capo and former chairman of Section 8, and a Fire season ticket holder since 2005, is more direct: “Frank [Yallop] is a great guy, with a lovely family. That said, he had not won an away match in almost two whole seasons: time to go.”
The numbers, as Stanton suggests, are unkind to Yallop. He won only 13 of his 63 games in charge of the Fire. The 66 league points he amassed in his two seasons is the lowest of any team who played in the league over that same period. He won two league away games in two years (and zero in 2015). The Fire weren’t just bad under Yallop; they were the worst team in MLS, conceding the most goals of any team and scoring the second fewest.
But bad as Yallop was, the sense among Fire fans is that he was more of a symptom than a cause of the club’s recent difficulties. The real problem, they think, is Hauptman, whose lack of football experience, coupled with an apparent disregard for the supporters, has created a toxic atmosphere at Toyota Park.
“People, especially people not involved in the Fire, seem to paint him as a hands-off owner, but if anything he is just the opposite,” Giroux said.
“He seems to meddle overly in the teams affairs and is not willing to put a capable manager in charge and let them do their job. Andrew [Hauptman] has done himself no favours with the supporters by doing this, and his attitude about the club and Section 8 has soured many fans to him beyond his actual meddling, claiming that he wanted to ‘rebuild the club from the ground up’ when he first purchased it.”
“He is always in hiding,” said Phil. “He lives in LA, occasionally comes out to Fire matches, but when he does, there is zero interaction with the fans and he does not speak to the Fire reporters. He makes it too obvious that he is scared. A real leader of the club would show accountability and have a line of communication with the fans of the club. If he wants to play his scared hiding game, he would be best off hiring a club president and then staying the hell away.
“What would I like him to do other than sell? Hire a soccer guy as president to organise a structure, while still offering the necessary financial resources to build the vision.”
“Hauptman continually shops the bargain bin for talent,” Stanton added. “Two summers in a row the Fire were pipped at the last minute for the big signing of the summer, both went on to considerable success in MLS. Hauptman does a lot of positive things around the community, like rededicating the wall of honour, but he can do so much more. If we are not going to win on the field we should be leading the way in impacting the community, dedicating new turf fields with Fire logos all across the city. But we’re not, and we finish last, and we are all over it. So sell the club to someone who is willing to spend the money and put the work in.”
Talk to any Fire fan long enough and one incident in particular is sure to come up: the Editorial.
In August 2013, the Fire’s then-Director of Communication, Dan Lobring, published an editorial on the Fire website (since removed) criticising fans, essentially, for criticising the organisation, and claiming that an authentic fan culture must begin with the club’s ownership.
“But I’m more interested in learning what made me a s***** hire on day one?” Lobring asked. “What brought about the warm reception from a vocal few as I was introduced as a new member of the ‘Fire family?’ My best guess is that because I work for an owner who is supposedly ‘cheap’, ‘doesn’t care’ and only sees the team as a ‘toy’. Or maybe it’s because I’m joining a front-office staff that just ‘doesn’t get it’ or only makes ‘bad decisions’.”
It is hard to imagine what Lobring and Hauptman hoped to achieve by addressing the fans like this. Whatever it was, it didn’t work. Lobring was out of the club within a year, while the first rumblings of the Hauptman Out campaign can all be traced back to that summer. Bad results are one thing, mistreating your most loyal supporters something else entirely.
Tensions reached a new peak during last season’s home game against the Colorado Rapids. Chicago’s fans were involved in two simultaneous protests, one inside (the Blackout) and one outside (the 90-Minute Tailgate) the stadium.
The Tailgate urged fans to make the trip out to Bridgeview, but to remain outside the ground for the entirety of the match, eating, drinking and enjoying each other’s company instead of the football. Vote with your feet, was the message. The only way to really get Hauptman’s attention was to hit him where it hurt the most: his wallet.
The problem was that many of the fans who felt strongly enough to participate in the tailgate were season-ticket holders already, which meant it was too late for them to hit Hauptman in the wallet. Their absence from the stadium would certainly show their dissatisfaction, but the underlying message rang a little hollow.
The Blackout was organised as an alternative form of protest. Fans were encouraged to take their usual seats, but to show their anger by wearing black, remaining silent throughout the match, and through the use of black streamers and other tifo displays.
The club, however, got wind of the planned protests in the lead up to the match and responded with an increased ticket-selling drive. The hope was that by offering tickets to casual fans for heavily reduced prices, they would be able to fill up the stadium (and the Harlem end in particular) and largely nullify the absence and silence of the protestors. It worked — attendance for the game was over 18,000, well above the season’s average for a match against a very poor Rapids side.
While there was a sense of disappointment at the impact of the two demonstrations (not to mention the response from the front office), the protests were a step in the right direction for Fire fans.
“A lot of the most vocal supporters of the protest were split between the two [protests],” said Giroux, who was involved in both. “This damaged the impact of the Blackout in the stands, which, combined with a larger than average crowd of new fans — and fewer of the active supporters than usual because of the tailgate — led to an underwhelming effect for me. That said, it was a lesson to Section 8 about what needs to happen to make a visual and lasting impact at Toyota Park and certainly got the attention of the front office, so in those ways it was a success.”
Phil, meanwhile, is concerned the Fire’s relative lack of media coverage is limiting the impact of the campaign. “Has the campaign made any progress? Yes, but probably not at the rate we want. The problem is there is basically no coverage of the Chicago Fire in the city so our efforts are largely ignored. Really, Twitter is the only way for us to show our protest signs etc. and have other clubs’ fans see it that way. We believe we’ve been seen by the MLS reporters as well, having sent them the pictures through social media, but I do not think they are really allowed to give us much light because it would reflect badly on the league. In fact, one person I spoke to that is involved with MLS said they could not talk about #HauptmanOut because it paints a negative picture of the league.
“On the other hand, Andrew [Hauptman] is scared shitless according to some that have spoken to people in the organisation, so he cares, but more for his own sake than his worry about the success of the club. That tells me we are making noise in some way and making progress… the next step is really to find the appropriate media resources to really get out there and make noise.”
In the final months of the 2015 season came the first signs the Hauptman Out campaign has had some tangible impact. On the same day Yallop was sacked, the Fire appointed Nelson Rodriguez as their new General Manager. Rodriguez came with a big pedigree as a former MLS executive. He was also the man tasked by the league with overseeing Chivas USA’s final season as an MLS team.
Some pessimistically (and possibly sarcastically) interpreted the hire as an indication the Fire would soon be heading the same way. Others, more optimistically, as a sign Hauptman had finally accepted the need to leave the running of the team in more capable hands. So far, the optimists appear to be winning out.
On November 25, the Fire named Yallop’s replacement: Veljko Paunović. The appointment, it would be fair to say, came out of left field. Young, attack-minded and charismatic, Paunović is about as far a cry from Yallop as one could ask for.
The Serbian began his career as a player at FK Partizan before bouncing around La Liga for nearly a decade, including two spells at Atlético Madrid. Perhaps more importantly, as far as Fire fans are concerned, he played a season in MLS with the Philadelphia Union before retiring in 2012. He broke onto the managerial scene last summer when he led Serbia to victory in the U-20 World Cup, beating Brazil in the final.
Given his pedigree as a player, his exploits with the Serbia U-20s and his MLS experience, Paunović’s signature represented something of a coup for the Fire, who could not have been the most attractive proposition for a promising young manager. Unsurprisingly, then, fans have reacted positively.
“The man is young, passionate and seems very excited about his chances here at the club and in MLS as a whole,” said Giroux. “More importantly, he is personal and endearing.
“This is a huge improvement over Frank Yallop and I honestly think that is the most important thing about this hire. He was a great player, with good vision and great work rate, and already has shown his tactical prowess with the Serbian U-20s, but I think his personality is what makes this a great hire.”
But if the appointment itself feels like a step in the right direction, Paunović has his work cut out for him. In particular, if Hauptman continues to meddle or is unwilling to support him in the transfer market, it is unlikely the new manager will be able to have the desired impact.
The fact remains that while Chicago may not realistically be able to compete with LA and the New York teams when it comes to signing the Pirlos and Gerrards of the world, they should still expect to be competitive. And if the 2015 MLS season taught us anything about the state of the league as a whole, it is surely that having a major global star (or three) and being a successful team do not always go hand in hand.
The four semi-finalists in this year’s MLS Cup playoffs — FC Dallas, Portland Timbers, New York Red Bulls, and Columbus Crew — had zero foreign superstars between them. The most famous player on all four teams was probably Shaun Wright-Phillips, who mainly sat on the bench for the Red Bulls. Of the players who started the MLS Cup final between Portland and Columbus, the player with the most top-flight European experience was Liam Ridgewell, a solid player, but certainly not on a par with some of MLS’s more high profile foreign imports.
In this early stage of its development, MLS is constantly changing. But the sense now is that to be successful requires, more than any superstar, MLS experience, stability and a clear tactical identity. And that requires more than a competent manager.
Given MLS’s profoundly complicated rules regarding salaries and contracts and transfers, Paunović doesn’t have enough power by himself to force a complete turnaround. He needs financial support from the owner, he needs a clear line of communication with Rodriguez and the technical director to ensure the right kind of players are recruited and he needs time to implement his ideas. There are a lot of unpredictable moving parts here and it will require a delicate touch to keep them moving in harmony — something the Fire front office has rarely shown in the past.
“The problem with the Fire still lies at his [Hauptman’s] feet: no clear team-building direction,” Giroux said. “Since the Fire hired Brian Bliss as technical director [he arrived at the end of the 2013 season and left for Sporting Kansas City in February 2016] things seem to be going well in that department, but we still have a broken team with no coordination and too few defenders, despite having some great individual players like Harry Shipp and David Accam.
“This is a problem that will be hard to address without having some long term stability in our front office and coaching staff.”
With the Fire’s rebuilding job set to continue for the near future, there is talk now of a new franchise coming to town — the old NASL side Chicago Sting. A supporters trust group has been established with the aim of bringing the Sting back to Chicago, while NASL commissioner Bill Peterson has expressed interest in fielding an NASL team in the city, though he has not yet found a viable ownership group. And one wonders what the presence of another Chicago-based football team will mean for the Fire.
Giroux and Stanton are optimistic. “I think it has a lot of exciting possibilities,” Giroux said. “For one, the Fire can no longer be content simply to exist because they will keep getting fans because there is no other team in Chicago, they will have to prove that travelling to Bridgeview is worth it. What is even more exciting about this is it’s not just competition for the Fire, this is a statement by the NASL to take Chicago away from MLS.
“Hopefully [the MLS Commissioner] Don Garber and company perceive this as being a real threat to their market and finally decide to throw some weight behind the Fire and marketing in Chicago.”
“I support the movement,” Stanton said. “It would be fun to see some direct competition for the soccer dollar in this town. It might add pressure to Hauptman to put up or lose his customers. Depending on where they play, I bet it would be a lot of fun for all, and a chance to start anew.”
Whatever happens, it is a fascinating subplot to MLS’s continued development, not to mention its growing competition with the NASL. The Chicago sports market is an extremely valuable one and it is hard to imagine MLS will give it up without a fight.
The appointments of Rodriguez and Paunović suggest things might finally be looking up for the Fire, but another season at the bottom of the table without any noticeable improvement on or off the pitch and one gets the sense tensions will ratchet up even further.
Something has to give, and soon. Chicago is simply too big a market, too valuable a potential tool to become one of the cities MLS forgot.
Amid all the growing unrest, however, it is also necessary to point out the Fire averaged over 16,000 fans a game during the 2015 season.
That is not a great number, perhaps, but for comfortably the worst team in MLS to fill up over 75% of their stadium every week is not exactly a bad return either, especially when you consider how hard the stadium is to get to for many fans who live in the city. By way of contrast, Chivas USA, which MLS decided to shut down in 2014 (to be rebranded for the 2018 season), averaged fewer than 8,000 fans a game in their final season. So the Fire do not appear to be in rebranding territory, attendance-wise.
Against Orlando, the official attendance at Toyota Park was 20,280 — a full house. Judging from the number of empty seats on show, that figure was almost certainly wrong. But the stadium did appear mostly full – an attendance of more than 16,000, anyway. Given that the season was almost over, the Fire had nothing to play for and Orlando are not particularly good either, the increase can likely be put down to Kaká’s anticipated presence. It might have been greater had he actually been fit and playing.
Here, then, is a straightforward, quantifiable example of how these big-name stars are benefitting MLS. What is harder to quantify is whether, had Kaká been playing, more people would have been paying attention.
This is not to imply that Americans don’t ‘get’ football. There are many knowledgeable and passionate football fans in the United States. Plenty of them were at Toyota Park that night, too. But the casual, often ignorant, fans are more interesting in the broader context of MLS’s battle to attain real cultural relevance in the US.
Because everyone in that stadium will contribute to MLS attendance statistics, not just the fanatics in the Harlem end. And these statistics really matter. Increasingly, they (along with league’s TV ratings) are being used to determine whether the league has made it, whether the talking heads at ESPN should spend five or ten or zero minutes discussing MLS on Sports Center every night.
Of the roughly 7 million people who attended MLS games last season, it is impossible to say how many qualify as knowledgeable fans (or, for that matter, what the standard of knowledgeability is or should be). But all 7 million of them, whether they realise it or not, are vital in the league’s ongoing battle to earn its place alongside the NFL, NBA and MLB at the top table of American professional sports.
As MLS continues to try to expand its fan base, it will inevitably find itself turning towards Americans who know very little about the sport. It has no other choice. This places the league in a very strange position, reliant on exactly the sort of uneducated fans who have turned the country into something of a joke among the international footballing community. The same fans, even, who have put off many long-time US followers of the European game from taking a greater interest in MLS.
Which is the other problem here: not only is MLS competing with the NFL, the NBA, MLB and to a lesser extent the NHL, it is also competing with the elite football leagues of Europe (primarily the English Premier League and the Champions League, which both now have major TV deals in the US with NBC and Fox respectively). And MLS is lagging behind. The league’s best viewing figures this century came in 2012, when an average of 311,000 people tuned into the 20 games broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2. During the 2014-15 season, by contrast, NBC averaged 479,000 viewers a game for its Premier League coverage.
There is a sense among US football types that as long as people are watching the game, it doesn’t really matter whether they are watching the Premier League or MLS or anything else. In terms of overall interest, it probably doesn’t.
But it poses questions for MLS clubs regarding the sort of fans they are best in position to attract. The more one knows about the sport, it seems reasonable to suggest, the more one cares about the quality at which it is being played. Which means in turn that regular followers of the Premier League are more likely to be put off by MLS’s relative lack of quality.
MLS seems to understand this, which is why it has gone to such great pains to market to a family friendly audience — not only will this audience be less likely to care about the quality of the football, it will also turn more kids on to MLS at a young age and give them a chance to develop some emotional connection to their local side before they have time to be drawn in by the more exotic charms of the Premier and Champions Leagues.
The issue here is not really one about football at all, but marketability; given the competition from the higher quality European leagues, the unique selling point of MLS is not necessarily the access it offers to elite sporting competition, but the access it offers to a sort of all-inclusive, grand-day-out family activity.
All of which is to say that while the only data we do have tells us that a lot of Americans now watch football regularly — probably too many to dismiss it as another short-term fad — there is a bigger, more important question about the way they are watching it, and whether it is possible for the sport to thrive without inspiring the sort of diehard fanaticism elicited by football in the rest of the world.
And that is a much more difficult question to answer.
Part of what makes it so difficult is the contrast between the understanding in America of professional sports as a form of live entertainment, a genre of show business, and the understanding in the rest of the world of football as a way of life, a religion of sorts.
As a member of a global footballing ecosystem, MLS is forced to confront this contrast in a way other professional sports in America are not. And as the league becomes more popular within the US and a more popular destination for high-profile players outside of it, MLS seems increasingly to be trapped between these two worlds.
In a lot of significant ways, MLS is a closer relative to the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB than it is to the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A. It is run as a single-entity business, which means the owners share revenue between them and players have contracts with the league instead of their individual teams, there is no promotion or relegation, there are playoffs, there is a salary cap and there is a draft in which the worst teams from the previous season get the first picks.
And yet the influence of global football culture on MLS is palpable. The league has teams called Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City. No fewer than five MLS teams attach an FC to their club’s name despite competing in a league that explicitly refers to the sport it plays as soccer. Then there are the supporters groups, whose tifo displays, flags, songs and even names (many of which incorporate the term ‘ultra’) are all inspired, to varying degrees, by football cultures from around the world. It makes for a strange sort of dissonance.
Time will tell, of course, but it seems the future of MLS will be heavily influenced by the way it chooses (or doesn’t choose) to confront these tensions, the way it comes to terms with its place in an increasingly global football community and, at the same time, its place in the largely isolated landscape of American professional sports.
What is certain for now — perhaps the only thing that is certain — is that MLS offers at least one thing to an American audience none of the European leagues can: live, competitive football. The quality is not as high, perhaps, but these are still very good players, and they are only getting better.
TV is becoming more and more a part of football fandom. It just is. But it is always worth reminding ourselves of the unique pleasures of watching football live, in the stadium, which remains the only place you can really watch it — the details, the little things: a first touch here, a tackle there, the way a player moves off the ball, the weight of a pass, the shape of a team, the way they step up, drop off, the sense the whole thing really is part of a single, moving body, more than just the collection of individual moments it often looks like on TV. It is only in the stadium you get the sense you might know what a player is thinking. And access to this mental dimension expands the game in a way television never can.
This, hopefully, will prove to be MLS’s trump card in the long run. The question now is whether it can attract a fan base that is willing to pay attention. Or, indeed, if it wants to.
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