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Our City: Laughing at Old Soccer Club Names, but Not at History

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We like to have a laugh at the silly names from America’s soccer past, but there’s something in a name when it sticks.

MLS: New York City FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week the soccer website Four Four Two posted a clickbaity article titled “Trying Way Too Hard: 10 of the Silliest American Soccer Team Names Ever.” With its first paragraph, the article praised the overly boring “United FCs” of the world and launched into shaming mostly minor league clubs and indoor teams from the past. While I’m not going to defend the Austin Sockadillos or the forever ridiculed Caribous of Colorado, I’m going to defend their history and importance to the history of soccer in the United States.

Certainly we can agree that sometimes teams have very silly names, but most American sports names appear off in the larger world soccer landscape. The old NASL, in an effort to draw in American fans, used traditional sports monikers, while avoiding iconic names like bears and lions. That’s how we ended up with teams like the Rowdies and Cosmos. Enter MLS in the 1990s, and they kept that tradition alive long enough to create what I’ve affectionately called the UTI Cup, when the Dallas Burn played the Kansas City Wiz.

MLS 2.0 shifted the landscape, rightfully so, to something a bit more traditional. The Burn became FC Dallas and the Wiz became Sporting Kansas City. Team names that, despite geographic location, could slip into any list of clubs around the world without them standing out. “FCs” and “Uniteds,” and yes even “Citys” became the new normal in a league trying hard to convince its fans that they were fitting into the world’s soccer landscape.

On a personal level, I can appreciate the removal of mythical beasts and imaginary ideals from club monikers. We no longer have to pretend a team of bears will be fighting a squad of magic. The team name on the badge means that our club in Orlando is playing your club in Atlanta, and that’s what matters. Unofficial nicknames add to the club’s image, like DC’s eagles or Orlando’s lions, without overdoing it.

Orlando’s lion of course comes from the 1980s and 1990s club that competed in Central Florida, adding a bit of tradition to our newer club. The Cascadia teams, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps, all bring a bit of history with their names as well. All of these names stretch back to the earliest days of professional soccer in these areas and landing in MLS with deep rooted traditions.

These are names that originate from the same generation as the ones being ridiculed by the Four Four Two article. The same league that produced both Gatos and Toros in Miami, Kicks in Minnesota, the New York Skyliners, and the Oakland Stompers. I’d argue that these names all sound silly because the clubs have folded long into obscurity. We’d be praising the tradition of the Oakland Stompers had they survived several decades. The Seattle Sounders would be a ridiculous name, had they not survived the contraction of numerous leagues over 40 years to create a tradition that still survives.

Perhaps it wasn’t ridiculous for people in the 1970s and 1980s to give their clubs silly monikers, maybe the crime is that they didn’t last longer. That instead of pointing fingers in a clickbait article at clubs that were trying to think outside of the box in an effort to popularize soccer in the United States, maybe we should point fingers at the greed of owners, the mismanagement of leagues, and the lack of direction U.S. Soccer provided. That leagues and teams opened and folded for the last 40 years at an alarming and destabilizing rate.

I understand why American fans prefer the now pedestrian “United FC” names in MLS. Our anxiety of acceptance bred a level of conformity that we are all more comfortable with. If that means the teams are supported and the league doesn’t fold, then I shall enthusiastically support them. In a globalized world, fitting in might be a better marketing strategy both domestically and abroad.

At the same time, give thanks that someone somewhere gave a damn enough to cheer for the Cleveland Stokers and the Jacksonville Tea Men. They broke down the entrenched barriers of American sports that allow us to fill up stadiums and cheer for “our city” now.

What do you think of the naming structures of American soccer? Have we gotten ourselves into a naming rut with LAFC and Atlanta United FC? Are flashy silly monikers just too American for the world’s game?