The absence of the United States Men’s National Team from the World Cup stage this summer added fuel to a simmering conversation of reform taking place around soccer here in the States. Much of the dialog has centered around the larger soccer pyramid and how players get access to the game at a variety of levels, how coaches should be trained, and what Major League Soccer should do differently. I’ve largely avoided this debate.
I can’t control what U.S. Soccer does, and I’m relatively certain they aren’t watching my Twitter feed for brilliant ideas.
The conversation has led me to ponder my role as a fan of Major League Soccer, a season-ticket holder with Orlando City, and a keen observer of the domestic game. The question I asked myself was simple; “What do you want from MLS?” We are so quick to constantly compare MLS to every league in the world — alternately wanting it to be as good as the Premier League but claiming it isn’t any better than the Luxembourg second division. In our assessments I wonder if we ever actually judge the league for what it is, instead of what it isn’t.
I want to watch good competition. MLS has that. While I agree that the front office could hold off on a bit of the micromanagement of the league, the idea of parity has created a league that is hypercompetitive. Eight games out of 10 feature two teams with a chance at winning. Partly this comes down to soccer itself, with a history of unlikely winners. Credit is also due to the league for setting up a system that allows teams to compete. Tuning into games as a neutral, I am constantly treated to enjoyably competitive matches.
The league needs to continue to address supporters’ concerns about refereeing. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’ve never chanted that the referee belongs on OBT, but the truth is this could be better.
One of the key points made by those who advocate for a promotion/relegation system is that it provides meaningful games at the top and bottom of the league throughout the season. Due to the above-mentioned competitiveness of the league, very few teams become fully eliminated from the playoff picture until late in the season (sorry, San Jose Earthquakes). Teams can fight until the end, and their supporters can hold out hope until the bitter end. Perhaps it lacks the drama of a team sliding out of the league and into obscurity, but the theater is still infused into the games. These meaningful games matter to players as well, giving them something worth playing for.
A Good Night Out
While the scouts and U.S. Soccer futurists debate the value and importance of the league, at the end of the day I’m just a supporter. All I really want at the end of the day is 90 minutes of drama on the field so I can disconnect from my life a bit, enjoy some time with my friends and family, make some new friends, and have a good night out. While Orlando City’s brutal run of losses has pained me this season, I’ve never not enjoyed myself at the stadium. I get a reason to go downtown, to hit up a favorite restaurant on the way to the game, and a favorite pub on the way home from it.
In various parts of my house hang scarves, game-day posters, and photos of my new wife and I at games. I can’t tell you the score of each game these mementos came from, I just know they are all good memories. (Although, I will confess, I don’t hang game-day posters when we’ve lost, only the winners.)
A Bit of Local Flavor
I am a proud Orlando, Floridian. I love this city and I love this state, almost as much as I love soccer. I want to see Orlando City do well, and I am appreciative of the cohesive spirit the entire Orlando City organization has formed in its time here. I want the club that represents our city to always be victorious in spirit, even when it falls to defeat. To that, I love the investment the club has put into local academies and have always taken a special interest in local players. With OCB back in the mix, I hope to watch more local players make it to the professional team.
I would hope my club and other clubs throughout the league believe that the local fan base is the most important one. The drive to become an “international sports business” often feels like the clubs and league take local supporters for granted. They shouldn’t.
This is a very personal and abbreviated list of what my expectations are for the league and the club. As I formulated this list I concluded that I’m probably more satisfied with the league than I might have believed, and a lot more than the loudest social media accounts. While I’ve read the endless lists of complaints, I’m not sure they are my complaints. When pressed, I can certainly find gripes about MLS; its hero-worship of Atlanta United, its careful media scripting, and the closed door to supporter micro-investment in clubs are constant irritants. At the end of the day, I realize it is what it is. And to me, it’s enjoyable.
What are you looking for in a league? In a team? Does MLS and Orlando City provide it for you? How so or why not?