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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

The need to accelerate growth has produced a product which can feel forced, contrived and controlled.

Soccer in the United States is in a pretty healthy state. Let’s make that clear right off the bat.

National team players are sprinkled generously throughout Europe’s top leagues, the main domestic league is in year two of a generous 10-year broadcast deal with Apple, a rival to the NWSL will launch in the fall, and there are three tiers within the USL.

But … and you knew a ‘but’ was coming … while it may be healthy, is it happy?

Going purely off recent rumblings, the answer would be a significantly clear and resounding ‘no’, certainly when it comes to Major League Soccer (MLS), the leading domestic league in the United States and Canada. And, while the rumblings recently have grown a little louder, many of the issues raised have been on or just below the surface for a while.

That dominance has seemingly given MLS chiefs the green light to showboat around town like some spoilt youth in their parents’ fancy car, hurling fast food trash out of the sunroof.

Now, with the referees’ strike and the farcical situation surrounding the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, perhaps fans feel emboldened to express their frustrations over a league which has exploded in the last decade and now dominates the domestic landscape.

That dominance has seemingly given MLS chiefs the green light to showboat around town like some spoilt youth in their parents’ fancy car, hurling fast food trash out of the sunroof. Acting though without a care in the world, and a belief that they are beyond reproach, MLS has wandered into a number of poop storms.

It would be easy to point fingers at individuals, accustomed to playing by their rules and having things their own way, but I would argue that is far too simplistic. I would suggest that some of the league’s behavior can be traced back to the very beginning in 1996.

Many may not know that there was life in the sport of soccer long before MLS and even before the original NASL. Among the many stories I enjoyed telling while with the BBC was the one behind why soccer had supposedly never fully taken off in the United States. This was a tale I told in late 2004 after covering my first MLS Cup, and took me to the US Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum which in those days was housed in Oneonta, New York. There I confirmed my research that had revealed soccer’s huge popularity in the early part of the 20th Century had been brought to an abrupt halt by the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Once through the Great Depression and the Second World War, those now seen as more traditional US sports had stepped into the void. Soccer was big, long before MLS!

Meanwhile, back to MLS, which came into being in 1996. As a league they gave the rest of the world a head start, in some cases by more than a hundred years. The new league in the United States was playing catch up, hence some of the tactics employed in those early years as they tried desperately to cast the net as wide as possible to please all-comers.

It didn’t have time for fan culture to organically take hold, so they felt obliged to offer a helping hand. And that was all well and good in the early days, as those new to soccer were discovering the beautiful game. But today, with the league in its 29th season, that approach now has more than a hint of control and, for some, comes across as patronizing; clubs telling fans how to engage with the match and the league instructing fans who they will loathe as they contrive to fast-track a product to rival the big boys of soccer.

Rivalries aren’t something some suit decides in the corridors of power, rather they are the choice of fans.

Chants aren’t something displayed on the big screen for fans to sing along to, like children at a school recital. These are conjured up by fans over a few jars in between games, perhaps scribbled on the back of a beer mat.

Clubs don’t determine tradition and culture. Again, that is the role of the fans, developed over years and passed down from generation to generation.

And there lies the crux of the matter. MLS hasn’t had generation after generation to evolve. It was, and still is, playing catch-up, emerging as it did with the sports culture and media market already established in this sports-mad nation. It has had to cut corners and conjure up gimmicks to appeal. At some point, though, the product has to stand on its own two feet.

Also, there has to be space for independent voices. I appreciate that with the new Apple TV deal the league (and clubs) may feel they no longer need independent media, and certainly not those who write and say what they want. But believe me, you do, and you also need to show enough maturity and grow a thicker skin so as not to feel you need to keep such a firm grip on the messaging.

Take the good, the bad, and – perhaps – the ugly. The alternative, as has been seen in the market I used to operate in, is the fringe media will simply walk away, leaving you even less relevant and making it even more difficult to get your story in front of the undecided.

The league has a lot to be proud of, but there’s still considerable room for improvement.

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