Winks Thinks: The More Lousy Soccer Edition
No matter who you were or what you had previously thought about the game of soccer, it’s likely you were still one of the millions of Americans caught up in World Cup fever this past summer. Whether it was Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal with no time to spare, the fluke goal that the Americans earned against the Brits, or the controversy that filled the Slovenia match, one way or another you were not only talking about soccer but you were developing a vested interest into what we field fairies call “The Beautiful Game”. Even though it was only for just a few weeks, at one point in the summer of 2010 America bucked the odds and became a soccer country.
The momentum stopped short of where most of us hoped it would, as the United States lost a heartbreaking matchup to Ghana in the knockout rounds. I remember that day so vividly, and I think the part of that day that sticks with me the most is that the moment the final whistle blew, because that’s when I could feel the entire nation immediately revert back to old form. It was as if everyone woke up from a deep hypnosis, had sort of a “where am I?” moment, and then laughed when you tried to convince them that they were actually soccer fans for the past four weeks. As soon as that game ended, so did America’s stature as a soccer country, and everything went back to normal as if nothing had ever happened at all.
For me, a guy who is admittedly a diehard soccer fan, this time this whole sequence of events was a bit harder to take. Every four years I see the same cycle of people not caring about soccer, to people becoming interested in the World Cup, followed by the age old question “Is this when soccer finally takes off in America?”, which is this capped off by another four years of apathy once the United States is knocked out of the tournament.
This summer though I was hopeful, but still realistic, that the Americans performance would at least bring a few more fringe fans into the fold. Hopeful that perhaps more people would start to follow the national team even outside of World Cup competition. And hopeful that maybe, just maybe, people would at least begin to pay attention the the professional league of soccer right here in America, the MLS. If people are going to become somewhat tolerant of soccer, why not support the domestic league we have right in front of us? I began to wonder why if people could get themselves into soccer once every four years, why not truncate the process and follow the home league season after season?
That was until I actually attended an MLS game.
When Major League Soccer (or More Lousy Soccer, as my friend Double C would suggest) first started in 1996, the league’s main goal was just to survive. The previous attempt at professional soccer in this country had a short lifespan because of overexpansion and an imbalance of funding, and while the league did enjoy a brief span of popularity the lack of foresight ended up doing the league in. Across seventeen seasons, the National American Soccer League saw the creation and demise of 43 different franchises. Some franchises were around just for one season, while other franchises moved all over the country in an effort to survive ( The Minnesota Strikers ended in the Twin Cities in 1984, but before that they were the Washington Darts, the Miami Gatos, the Miami Toros, and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. Hard to keep a consistent fanbase with so many changes). Needless to say, stability wasn’t one of the lasting legacies of this league.
The main reason for all the folding and creating of teams was the severe mismanagement of funding. Teams would start up and fold after one season because one season of negative expenses couldn’t be justified, while other teams folded because they couldn’t keep up with the payrolls of the larger market teams, most famously the New York Cosmos. This was all of course before the days of revenue sharing, and the bigger fish of the league definitely ate up the minnows. It was not a structure built to lend itself to longterm success, and thus the league folded.
Twelve years later, a new league formed in America, which was actually a requirement of FIFA in order for the United States to hold the 1994 World Cup. Imagine the outrage throughout the rest of the world when it was determined that a country that doesn’t even have it’s own professional soccer league outside of a few indoor leagues, and a country that really doesn’t even like soccer for that matter was going to hold the sport’s most prestigious event. Out of that animosity, Major League Soccer was formed.
To avoid the perils of it’s predecessor, Major League Soccer took things slowly. At first, it was a single-entity league, which basically meant that all teams were owned by the league itself. A salary cap was put in place throughout the league, and the compensation for these guys was nowhere near what the stars like Pele were making back in the 1970′s. The league was prepared to lose money for years before it would start to see a profit, and even though it was going to be an arduous process, a successful layout for the league seemed to be intact (even though 15 years later you are starting to see a lot of expansion and higher contracts to international stars, which are basically the same problems that did the NASL in all those years ago. But that’s a topic for another day).
The underlining fact in all of this though is that no matter how you structure the league, the product has to be something worth seeing. And in America, soccer already is a tough enough sell, so the league had to make sure that they weren’t delivering a poor version of the sport. In the first few years of the league though, that’s exactly what you saw. On a family vacation in the Tampa area in 1996, I did attend a Tampa Bay Mutiny game in the league’s inaugural season (granted, the Mutiny have since folded, but that’s also a topic for another day). All that I remember about the game now? Meeting the players on the field for autographs before hand, and the two minutes of video we shot on our VHS camcorder during the game, only because I just recently watched it (I used to be crazy about family VHS tapes. While most people were watching cartoons as kids, I was watching home videos over and over again. That has to be an unhealthy complex of some kind, doesn’t it?)
Simple thing is, I don’t remember the game because the quality of play wasn’t very good. And the only way that the league was going to succeed was if the soccer was, in fact, not poor. Ever since that first year, I haven’t really followed the MLS as much as you’d think I would have. Not because I’m one of those diehard European fans that won’t watch the domestic product because it’s inferior, but because it just didn’t interest me enough to go out of my way to watch it. This year though, after the World Cup, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to become an MLS diehard, and really get into this league. I studied the rosters, I learned about the players, I checked often for the results for both the league play and when the clubs were in international competition. I had the games on the television but still, it was more as background noise than it was to actually watch the tactics of the game. I decided that if I was going to get into this league, I had to fully immerse myself in an actual game.
Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.
I don’t really know how to describe the event that is a Major League Soccer game. It doesn’t really feel like when you go to a Packers, Brewers, or Bucks game. Those are all professional sports and when you enter the stadium for either of those teams you know you are at a big-time event. With Major League Soccer, it doesn’t really feel like any of that. The game I went to was last Wednesday night, as I headed down to Chicago to watch the home Fire take on the New England Revolution. Nevermind the fact that the traffic there was terrible even for Chicago, nevermind the fact that the stadium is tucked away in some industrial neighborhood on the south side that is impossible to get to, nevermind the fact that Will Call didn’t even have our tickets ready for us, I wasn’t going to let those things deter me from enjoying this game. I was going to leave that disappointment up to the game itself.
What can I say, it’s hard to go from watching World Cup and international soccer all summer and then trying to dive in to watching the MLS, which is a lesser form of the product, there’s no way around it. And this game I attend was an especially bad soccer game. Sure, we saw a few goals (some games you don’t even get that), and there were some exciting moments but for the most part it was just lousy soccer. Just slow, plodding soccer with mistouches galore. Add that to the fact that it just felt, and I really can’t think of a better word than weird, it just felt weird to be there. The fans were loud, there was a great section of diehards in the north endzone, but for the most part the event seemed as if there were 14,000 people in the stands just hanging out and making noises, and oh by the way there just happened to be a soccer game going on. Wait a minute, there were really 14,000 people there?
Soccer is kind of a weird game to watch live anyway, as you have to be fully aware of everything for a solid 45 minutes at a time. There are no breaks, no good times to go to the concession stands, no good opportunities to check your phone for whatever information is so urgent that it needs to be checked upon. If it’s a good game, and the action is fast paced and intriguing, then watching a soccer game is a hell of a lot of fun. But if it’s up to the quality of play that this particular MLS game was, then it’s a pretty boring experience. Maybe it’s my fault for driving a total of seven hours to see just two hours worth of soccer now that I think about it.
Actually, has anyone ever been to a Milwaukee Wave game? Probably not, but if you have you’ll notice that while it is a soccer game, the majority of the reason why you go there is for the fan experience, and fan entertainment. Goofy contests throughout each break, music being pumped at all times during the game, a really corny public address announcer, you get all of that and then hardly any of the attention is given to the actual game itself. While I know that the Bucks have the Rim Rockers and the Brewers have the sausage race, those for some reason seem a lot more professional. Probably because you know they are taking place at a professional event. The Wave and now I’m seeing the Fire as well just lack that feel of professionalism while you are watching the game. I’m not sure yet if it’s just because of their particular experiences or if it’s the experience of watching soccer as a whole in America. You see how different the atmosphere is on television for the European league games, and I did not get that feel during the MLS contest. Everything felt a little more… fabricated, I guess.
It saddens me though to say all that now that I’ve put those feelings down in print. After all that I’ve talked about, all that I’ve done trying to get people to open their eyes up to “The Beautiful Game”, I really can’t stand the fact that I’ve become one of them. One of the people that voluntarily goes out of their way to bash the game that so many love. I’m still going to follow this league, and I’m still going to try to spread the word, but last Wednesday night wasn’t a very good example of what soccer in this country could be. I really didn’t see an improvement in play from the game I saw this season compared to the game I watched some 15 years ago. Maybe in another 15 years I’ll give it another try.
Hopefully the league is still around by then.
* You know, I really hate Rick Reilly. As a writer he makes the same jokes over and over and they are so so lame (I often refer to his comment about how soccer has more ties than a Father’s Day sale at JC Penney’s, I mean, that is just not good humor people), he’s way over the top on television, and it always seems like he’s trying to fit in to a crowd of people that don’t want him there. So when I saw that he was hosting SportsCenter the other day I was ready to watch him and rip him to shreds, but he actually did a hell of a lot better on that program than anything I’ve seen him do since he joined ESPN. You’d think that if you do anything at ESPN, you would be the most nervous to anchor SportsCenter, but Reilly seemed a lot more calm in that setting than any other I’ve seen him in. I still hate him, but I did want to give him some props there.
* I’ve also always been hesitant to like the Tosh.0 series just because I thought the premise was stupid, but I finally got around to watching an episode this week. While the premise is still stupid, Daniel Tosh has me sold on him. Anyone who can still throw a Soy Bomb reference into their program is alright by me.
* Speaking of things I don’t like, I have never like the New York Jets for whatever reason, especially when they hired Rex Ryan on board as their coach. But I am doing a complete 180 now that I have watched a few episodes of Hard Knocks. Their GM is candid, Ryan is sort of tolerable, and I think Mark Sanchez is hilarious even though he’s a little too sulky when he’s doing poorly. The moment of this show so far is when Kris Jenkins is riding on a golf cart, laughing joyfully as if he’s a five year old kid just seeing Disneyland for the first time. There is no audio of him laughing, but the shot is just him riding in slow motion to some funky porn type music. Slowly but surely, I’m going to find myself rooting for this team. (And this clip of Antonio Cromartie struggling to remember the names of his eight kids from six different women doesn’t hurt either).
* I really don’t like the fact that there is a picture of a cow on the gallon of chocolate milk I am drinking out of right now. I can’t tell if said cow is staring at me because he’s mad I’m drinking his milk, or if he’s trying to seek my approval. “You better like my milk, bitch!” It’s just a strange sort of procedure there. I’d feel just as uncomfortable if there was a picture of a baby pig on the box of ham that I bought, and if there was a picture of an old shoe on the package of hot dogs that I ate for lunch. By the way, I just read that the average American eats 60 hot dogs a year. Really? There’s no way that’s accurate information.
* Reasons this article didn’t get posted sooner, because I was browsing the following: The official rules to beer pong, the soundtrack from Inception on YouTube, results for soccer’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the SonicTap music that is provided to DirecTV customers, pictures of girls on Facebook, the Big Ten Network’s Wikipedia page, this clip of Matt Damon ripping on Sarah Palin, live updates on the Big Brother house, information on the city of Texarkana (both in Texas and Arkansas), Bob Vila’s Wikipedia page. Wow, what a waste of a day.
See you at the Code Red Challenge fantasy draft…
(I know it’s only my second week on PocketDoppler, so I apologize for the soccer article right off the bat here. Oh well. If you want to read anything else I happen to write throughout the week, check out The Bucky Channel or find me on Twitter @thebuckychannel).