Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the soccer culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber termed the changes the league was undertaking in and around 2008 as ‘MLS 2.0.’ This period saw the league add Designated Player and Homegrown Player contracts, the changing of team names away from Americanized mascots, and grassroots supporter culture. As the game continues to make inroads into the United States, what could MLS do to cement itself into the sports and cultural landscape of the country?
Here are some of my thoughts. Consider these starting points, conversation starters, but certainly not definitive or comprehensive.
This American (Soccer) Life
In some of the Major League Soccer markets, the clubs have begun to become part of the fabric of the city. Game day or not, you know you are in a soccer city when you walk through places like Orlando or Portland. Still, this isn’t Turin or Glasgow quite yet. While an abstract goal, MLS needs to continue working on building the profile of the league and its teams. The league has done a good job of gaining the attention of the target audiences, like suburban millennials and foreign-born/first-generation Americans. Even the elusive fans of European elite teams have at least a working knowledge of MLS, despite their unwillingness to fully embrace the league. MLS game days still come and go and champions are crowned without much acknowledgement outside of the league’s core fans and media outlets. The league has to continue to build the brand.
New Life for Old Markets
The league set a new average attendance record in 2016. Led by Seattle, Orlando, and NYCFC, the league has exhibited enviable crowds in these markets. Combine this with the impressive numbers shown by Atlanta and Minnesota in their first MLS games, and the massive turnout shown by potential expansion cities in the USL, and soccer looks to be hitting a nice growth spurt over the past few years. These figures hide some less-than-stellar numbers shown by the lower end of the attendance table. Legacy markets like Dallas, Chicago, and Washington D.C. have struggled to fill stadiums for a variety of legitimate reasons. The league needs to find ways to channel the excitement for the game in newer markets into some of the cities that have been around the league longest. Downtown and soccer-specific stadiums certainly help.
I am curious to see how FC Dallas’ new 1% transfer dividend for season ticket holders plays out. While not something that may inspire masses to join the supporter ranks, it could add a sense of community that helps retain season ticket holders. While too soon to rate this as a success, I applaud it.
Win With Kids, or at Least Players in their Prime
There is a recent trend towards teams finding star players in their prime vs. superstar European league players on the verge of retirement. The future of the league should look more and more like this trend. The league is still actively courting players like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose experience and stardom make them crowd pleasers. While there is nothing wrong with this, exciting young players developed at MLS clubs, or signed during their prime years, can and should become the norm. While no one would argue players like David Villa or Kaká have not been exciting elements of the league, it has been players like Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Ignacio Piatti who have been affordable stars that are game changers and have given the league a credibility that aging Designated Players don’t.
I’d love to see youth academies and a “B” team become standard for all clubs to continue to develop American players.
No More Uniteds
There has been a move away from American team monikers, like Wizards and the Clash, towards those fitting into more traditional footballing names, like United and FC. This has been largely successful in giving the league an authentic feel for fans of the global game. Now, with multiple teams using these club names it feels a bit generic and uninspired. There should be a way to navigate team naming without falling into cheesy Bears and Tigers territory, while at the same time giving clubs unique marketable brands. As new expansion clubs move into the league, I’d love to see teams use regional symbolism like the Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders have.
On that note: No more red! With all the potential colors available, teams still seem too attached to red. Like Orlando’s purple and Houston’s orange, identity can be found in setting yourself apart in a competitive sports landscape.
Those are just a few ideas, more of a brainstorming session than a manifesto. In general, I’m supportive of the managed growth for which the league gets a lot of criticism. Having lived through some of the old NASL days and the empty period before MLS got off the ground, I understand the need to nurture the game. At the same time, the league will need to take off the training wheels at some point and operate like a traditional league. The changeover and how it is handled will be critical to how the game grows in the next 20 years.
What do you think? What do you want to see MLS do as it continues to grow? What would you suggest for teams that are struggling to bring in fans? Reach out on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory or comment below. See you in the stands!