Far Post Footy

Shopkeepers and Footballers

 

The following is a list of ideas and phrases I developed, found, culled from speeches/articles/podcasts/life over a year ago. I never got around to publishing them or much of anything. Most of this is both life and sport related. It’s all relative to improvement and development. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be the end-all-be-all of any one particular school of thinking. It’s just a collection of thoughts — that’s it.

  1. Players and coaches both need to understand and live this phrase: “In order to have, you have to do. In order to do, you have to be.” In other words, to achieve any sense of trust, you have to perform trustworthy actions. In order to do that, you have to be inherently trustworthy. The big caveat and universal truth of this statement is you can and should replace the word “trust” with any actionable quality and adjective. Think: greatness, powerful, talented, dedicated, committed, disciplined, etc.
  2. External competition is a misnomer. Before you can compete externally, you must first learn to compete internally. That is, you must have a purpose — one that drives you to be better than previous versions of yourself. However, competition as an action is less of a battle than it is a leveling-up process. Competition is the introduction of adversity. When done correctly, this is a net positive.
  3. Everything within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  4. “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”  Not everything is about direct instruction and the dependency on it. Players are conditioned to only accept direct instruction, coaches are conditioned to only deliver it. Not everything is ready to be taught when we want to teach it…it takes time and it takes rounds of failure. When both parties are receptive and engaged — progress begins.
  5. The job of a player/coach is the same as a shopkeeper. It’s up to you to open the shop every day. One cannot be successful if they aren’t open for business and aren’t willing to partake in commerce — the exchange of time, ideas, and energy — on a daily basis. If the shop is closed, there is no commerce.
  6. Mentorships: Not every player, coach, or individual is worthy of mentorship. It is NOT a coach’s job to mentor someone if it becomes clear that whatever it is you’re trying to help them with isn’t a priority to them. If you can say, “This is just not important enough for you,” to their face and stand by that assertion, it’s time to cut them loose and move on. Without commitment and reciprocation and application, the pupil is not willing to learn. See point 4.
  7. How to deal with a great apple turning into a bad apple. Give advice, give guidance, but be wary of that one bad apple that threatens to spoil the bunch. Remove it before it’s too late. You’re doing both parties a great service with clear communication and blunt and honest messaging.
  8. On Groupthink: Too many people think they have an entourage but in reality the entourage has them. Influencers will take over. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially in team dynamics. Engage in critical thinking. Be creative. Be an independent and free thinker. Challenge your own ideas before you blindly accept them as infallible.
  9. Relationships MUST be built on trust and they MUST be voluntary. Teammates have to trust one another. Coaches have to trust their players and players must trust their coach and his/her intentions and philosophy. The one relationship that’s most overlooked, however, is the relationship with the self. This relationship is often the hardest to maintain, manage, and care for as it’s also the most important relationship we have.
  10. RESISTANCE: Introduce and overcome resistance — that’s what professionals do. Avoidance of things that challenge us is damaging to our development.
  11. “Seek first to understand then to be understood”: It’s easy to criticize that which we do not understand or accept on the surface. Conducting a self-inventory and analysis of not just what we don’t understand, but also why we don’t understand something is a valuable lesson in intentional thinking, patience, and maturity.
  12. It’s much easier to define what you’re against than it is to define what you’re for: see number 11.
  13. What you think is way less important than how you think: see number 11.
  14. Strategy without execution is ineffective. An average strategy with great execution is far more effective and greater than a great strategy with poor execution. Related: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit” — Henry Rollins. Experience is king.
  15. One person can change the world for the better so long as they don’t care who gets the credit. This saying is found in a number of different texts in a variety of different phrasings. The truth remains constant. Focus on progress and development more than focusing on getting credit. People will focus on the result over the method most of the time anyway.
  16. What gets measured gets managed. Get your reps in. Repeat. I’ve always subscribed to this methodology in most aspects of playing, training, studying, working, coaching and life in general. Obviously, quality over quantity is a factor but there is little wrong with repping out on the good things in life.
  17. Focus on progress, not perfection. This is simple. Adopt a “better than zero” mindset. Positive changes arrive incrementally. Work on moving the needle a little bit at a time. Whatever you do, just keep going.
  18. We must to become experts in becoming an expert. Work on the process…to find a solution, we need to learn how to work the problem. Study, apply, fail often, repeat. There is a lesson to be learned — you just have to look a bit harder.
  19. Use the extreme to reveal the subtle. Illustrate points and teachable moments with care and clarity. We are stubborn creatures. Oftentimes, it’s best to see the dramatic outcome of a poor decision or a series of poor decisions or behaviors to really reveal what’s causing them in the first place.
  20. There’s a difference between a person who’s “being there” and who’s “just there”. There’s a difference between being fit and being a good fit.
  21. The key is measuring character, resolve, ability, skill is NOT when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our worst.
  22. Treat people like a rubber band. If you constantly stretch it too much, it will snap. If you carefully stretch it to the brink while being mindful not to cause too much stress, it doesn’t snap. It becomes more pliable.
  23. Don’t look back. We aren’t going that way. Remember that it’s important to reflect and learn from the past, but we can’t go back nor should we try to…don’t dwell on the things that cannot and will not change. The sooner you realize it’s never going to be the same again the faster you can begin to make progress and ensure a better future.
  24. “It’s not what you say…it’s what they hear”. Choose your words, choose your tone, choose your delivery method.
  25. “Skill that is untested does not equate to actual skill.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Advertisements

The Culture Wars of American Soccer

If you’ve played, coached, or watched soccer at any level in the United States and Canada then you’ve seen the worst pregame warm-up activity imaginable — the shooting line. The activity itself is a microcosm of the pedestrian misappropriation of the world’s game. Youth team coaches are guilty of allowing all of the players regardless of position to partake in a party of potshots. This “warm-up” is even used by high school, college and Major League Soccer coaches.

Such an activity is important for attacking players and goalkeepers before a game. Good teams and coaches designate a time and place for the attacking players and the goalkeepers to get their reps. They also organize position-specific activities for the other players, mini-stations, possession grids, rondos, and a plethora of other functional activities to get the team ready to perform. One difference, however, between a clued-in and a clueless team is identified by the amount of standing and static stretching taking place before competition. Most likely, you’ve seen that line grow longer and longer as players miss shot after shot and subsequently chase the ball across acres of parking lots and other fields.

The enemy is not the shooting line, but rather the coaches — charlatans embodying every bad coaching cliché that should have stayed in the 1990s-era soccer movies that made a mockery of the game — who use this as a primary function for warm-up or pregame activity.

This rudderless navigation of soccer isn’t limited to pregame shenanigans. In the United States, the odds are great that players arriving early to practice will take potshots at an empty goal with shots ending up everywhere but in the goal. Admittedly, I was raised in a culture where this insanity was all too common. Between the ages of 9-14, I learned early on that the activity was not only lodged “deep in the dumb”, but it was unrealistic. At no point were any of the players exhibiting the actual movements and skill that would even allow them to get such a shooting opportunity in a game, and yet, true to form, this activity is still done with regularity. Growing up, I often found myself opting to dribble the ball around on my own before games or at practice while my teammates took shot after shot at the goal until a coach showed up. I attribute my avoidance to the playing pick-up and street soccer.

You see, in the brand of pick-up and street soccer I grew up playing there were no giant goals, at least none with nets. If you shot the ball, there was no guarantee another group of players wouldn’t stab it with a pen or pocketknife, steal it themselves, or punt it onto Interstate 280. Games often turned into literal turf wars. Losing often extended beyond the scoreline, it meant losing respect and the opportunity to play there again. Growing up in an area of cultural tension soaked in racial and nationalistic rivalries was tough, but it emblazoned many of us with a steadfast desire to be better, tougher, and more savvy players. My neighborhood buddies were of Mexican, Bolivian, Nicaraguan, Portuguese, Kenyan, Vietnamese, Korean, and Bosnian descent. A few were refugees and brought with them their soccer talent and the savagery they were exposed to in their war-torn homelands. The tense culture of the time conditioned each of us to value the ball at all costs — taking pregame potshots was out of the question.

street-soccer

Away from the skirmishes on the dirt patch parks or the vacant basketball courts with chain-linked nets in the world of “organized” soccer I discovered how different the game was regarded. I wouldn’t even call the brand of organized soccer available to me remotely related to the stuff we played in the streets, courts, and parks. Positions were too rigid in the organized version of the game. Coaches were too “all knowing” but when they demonstrated how to do something, it was clear they never played the game let alone kicked a ball. I don’t fault them for their lack of tact or playing experience. Soccer in the late-1980s through the 1990s was filled with a systemic disconnect with the world in an effort to Americanize the game.

I recall playing in a game where I dribbled the ball across half field and my coach screamed, “You can’t cross to the other half! That’s for NOT your position! Get off the field!” That was the last time I played for that team. But, the root of issues such as rigid positioning, pregame potshots, and out-of-touch coaches was the shoehorning of a global, free-flowing game that demands players be as intelligent and a “different” type of athletic in the mold of the sports dominating American culture. Warm-up activities in basketball involve shooting lines. American sports tend to have overtly-stratified positions that players do NOT vacate.

Growing up in the cultural melting pot of northern California’s Bay Area and later, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, put the juxtaposition of soccer culture with American sporting culture at great odds. Deep down, I want to believe that American sporting culture includes soccer in a capacity extending beyond a “recreational activity” reserved for suburban kids of affluence and their accompanying “soccer moms” in minivans and Lexus SUVs. Watching a youth American football (gridiron) game, it’s evident that over-control, scripting plays, and parents and coaches donning the team’s apparel is an integral part of the culture. What is acceptable in those sports bleeds over to youth soccer and the result is a growing disconnect between the [North] American player and the global player.

Spending time abroad as a youth player afforded me a unique lens with which to view the game I love. When I arrived at training early, players passed the ball, got touches on the ball, performed variations of rondos, and jogged around with a ball — all uncoached and unprompted. Once a training session commenced, it was highly-organized but was free-flowing at the same time. We played mini-games instead of full-field scrimmages, shooting-specific drills where attacking players worked against defenders took precedence over static shooting lines, dedicated technical training was taught and performed for the sake of using the skills in a game, not for “oohs” and “ahhs” of helicopter parents.

As easy as it is to sing the praises of the game is played overseas and stating how far we have to go, the point is the culture today still have far too many remnants of the ignorant soccer culture I grew up combating. The main source of solace I find is most of the people getting into coaching and the overall soccer discussion played the game themselves. The importance of the experiential cannot be understated, nor can the importance of individuals willing to learn more about the craft of coaching.

Perhaps beyond any coaching point I could make, the onus lies on the American player. The American player does not play enough soccer. There is no shortage of praise for American players who “hit the weights”. The fact of the matter is the American player still needs to be prompted to get out and play on their own. If there is a pick-up or street soccer culture, I have not seen it and believe me, I’m looking for it.

One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. It’s time to build a soccer culture across urban and suburban lines. We can talk about new coaching curriculum all we want, but until there is a stronger and more willing playing populous to challenge and push those coaches to be better, the cycle will repeat itself as will the obsession with average.

picture_6-scaled1000

A Messi Comparison

A Messi Comparison
By: Jon Townsend

Major League Soccer’s official website recently put together a short mash-up video asking the question, “When will MLS produce its own Messi?” The video itself, more paid promotional collateral soaked in corporate initiative-driven opinion than honest exploration, reiterated the common reasons and myths regarding the perpetual absence of an American player of world class caliber. While the Development Academy system is a necessary step to advance the game stateside, it is but one route to the upper echelon of the American game, and it was instituted more than a decade after MLS kicked off in 1996. The good part is MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation have both finally succumbed to the fact that one doesn’t build a house starting with the roof. The not-so-good part is the U.S. Soccer Development Academy “demosphere” shows how many states and areas do not have “academy” teams. For players in these areas with no Development Academy their choices are: move to area with an academy, stay the course and hope to be discovered, or fizzle out like so many promising young talents scattered across the nation like sticks in the wind have before.

But what made this question bold beyond belief, bold bordering arrogance, was the assumption that leagues produce players. Leagues do not produce players, clubs and coaches produce players. Long before a player takes the pitch at the professional level, bright boots and pressed kit and all, credit is owed where it’s rightly due. Much like teachers, youth coaches are in the business of being overworked, underpaid, and undermined. Subsequently, they are also in the business of planting seeds; they’ll never have the opportunity to reap the fruits of their labor.

Soccer is no different. The game we see on television is the latest iteration of a million steps a player took along their developmental journey. So, who really produces players? At a recent joint UEFA/FIFA conference assessing and reviewing the technical analysis of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Joachim Low discussed the role of the modern coach. “Because of his expertise and philosophy, a coach needs to communicate with the players. I’ve learnt that over the years. The players today want explanations and arguments, they understand when they are criticized and a coach needs to explain why. In that sense, psychological and communication skills are important for a coach.”

Low’s words echo what most already know. Players need justification. Parents need validation. How this information is disseminated is critical to its absorption. The World Cup-winning coach went on to say, “Youth coaches create world champions,” crediting the significant role of German football’s14-year rise to pinnacle of world football culminating in a World Cup victory, to youth coaches who bought into the overhaul and revamp of the German youth development model.

The German Football Association’s power is derived from the grassroots, youth, and provincial academy coaches cohesively reevaluating what’s important regarding the progression of Germany’s, not just the Bundesliga’s, football. To assume a single entity, closed league like MLS can produce a single “world class” player in a country with the resources, cultural hotbeds, infrastructure, and knowhow of the United States suggests that any and all progress to such elevated status of a Lionel Messi is misguided. Most, if not all of the best players in Major League Soccer were developed elsewhere with the exception of a DeAndre Yedlin, who’s on his way to Tottenham Hotspur. From the best collegiate products (which yielded some of the league’s best American players to date) to the exorbitantly-paid Designated Players and foreign imports, Major League Soccer has and will continue to benefit from the external development of its players.

Given the nefariousness of a term like “world class”, it’s entirely plausible that the subjective nature of such a term shrouds it in ambiguity. Lionel Messi was introduced to the game with local club Grandoli FC, a club managed by parents in a rough and tumble working-class neighborhood that provides training and league games for local children. From his neighborhood club, Messi progressed to the youth academy at Newell’s Old Boys. Without delving into what makes Messi a phenomenal player, it’s clear that even as an exceptional talent his route to greatness required him to leave home to be groomed and developed in Barcelona at La Masia. His brilliance was not developed by La Liga. It was developed by the Barca’s methodologies closely tied with those at Ajax. The multilayered and multilateral coaching practices and rigorous attention to detail regarding his performance capabilities occurred for years within a club system, not a league.

Regarding player retention, Major League Soccer continues to see its best young players go abroad to development academies and teams in Europe. But the original question, although painted with a broad brush is good as such an inquiry brings salient questions to the forefront. Are MLS Academies competitive enough against regional opposition? In terms of recent MLS academy performances against Liga MX academy sides at a U15 tournament, the results weren’t favorable for MLS, whose sides ended up with a 0-7-1 record. Notable results were Club Atlas thumping Toronto 10-1, Pachuca beating Houston 2-0, Chivas de Guadalajara beating Chicago Fire 3-2, and Morelia drawing 1-1 with FC Dallas. While it’s not entirely prudent to assess the holistic state of MLS Academies from these results, it does help answer the true root of the original question. “When will MLS produce its own Lionel Messi?”

The answer is whenever Major League Soccer and its misleading marketing machine decides it has produced its own Lionel Messi because the reality is that Lionel Messi will not resemble the Lionel Messi. What standard will MLS with the help of MLS Digital Properties and Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, set for “its own Messi”? Will the “MLS Messi” be made to stay in the league for the duration of his career? Will he be allowed to have a say in what club, err, franchise he’s allowed to play for? Must this “MLS Messi” be to MLS what David Beckham was to adidas, Pepsi, and Italian underwear modeling initiatives? Will this “MLS Messi” be American? And ultimately, will this “MLS Messi” be anywhere near the standard quality required in the world’s top leagues if MLS is not one of those top leagues itself?

Framed this way, one can peel back the motivations of the original quandary. Does MLS ask such a question on behalf of the betterment of its brand? After all, in a closed league that controls each franchise rather than allowing club autonomy and governance, it’s clear business strategy and brand visibility trumps all else. With the league’s continued expansion how will true footballing growth, the product on the pitch, be measured? Attendance figures, disproportional salary metrics, an amalgamating league-wide logo rebrand, and a flurry of questions revolving around the ambiguous and ever-frustrating amorphous MLS Rules and Regulations standards have given rise to another question.

Has the U.S. Soccer Federation wedded the sport’s success to one league? It’s evident the success of national teams is partly dependent on the strength of its top flight league (unlike MLS, most of those leagues compete in a system whereby poor performance over the span of a season can result in relegation). The other dependency of a national side’s success is where and at what level its core players ply their trade. As the sport in the United States continues to increase in popularity, it’s also clear much of this popularity is derived largely from foreign players, national teams, clubs, and leagues. Whilst fans in the U.S. tend to watch MLS, many prefer to watch foreign leagues over MLS on the regular. American audiences still tune into European league coverage much more than they do MLS games. Future projections of increased television revenues and fund distribution and exposure for MLS are unlikely to pry fans away from top global leagues at the weekend. That conversion occurs when the level on the pitch in MLS trumps that in the world’s top leagues, which is unlikely to happen as long as the development of American players oscillates between “good enough” for MLS to “surplus to requirements” in European sides.

The best players in the world have mastered the basics. In the United States, generation after generation is applauded for trying the basics. The mentality of the American player isn’t yet at the level of resilience of players growing up abroad. The production of players starts with a simple observation: those who have to be forced off the pitch after training and those who can’t wait for the whistle to signal the end of training. In any sport, when players view their own success and progress as a means for survival, the result is players who enter the professional game equipped with a mentality that’s rare in the American soccer player.

A prime example of this mentally can be traced to Brek Shea’s interview published in Sports Illustrated earlier this month. Shea, an MLS product himself and an MLS MVP finalist in 2011 transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City in January of 2013. His list of complaints to soccer in England included the grey weather, the seriousness of the game, the fact that soccer is more “like a 9 to 5 job”, the camaraderie he fondly missed in MLS along with the weekly team barbeques to name a few “issues” a player in the national team set-up and an MLS product cited. When Shea frames life in MLS as more relaxed to that at a club like Stoke City, it speaks of the cultural differences and vast gulf in mentality between MLS and a club like Stoke City let alone a club like FC Barcelona. While Shea’s apathy for the challenges life as a professional player in England doesn’t represent all Americans playing abroad, it is a troubling mentality for a player who’s paid to kick a ball.

While the “what if the best athletes played soccer” fable is unlikely to die off (it really needs to), the United States is unique in the sense that its athletes have an abundance of estuaries that other countries simply don’t have regarding sporting options. Firstly, in the American sporting sense, there’s a difference between a pure athlete with raw physical tools and abilities and a proficient soccer player. The demands of soccer lean on skill-sets and attributes that aren’t transferable from most American sports.

The “best athlete” argument is stale, so the real question is lodged in is soccer losing these athletes to other sports? In all likelihood, yes, but the remaining talent pool is arguably the biggest youth participation sport in the country. According to the U.S. Youth Soccer Organization, as of 2012 the US Youth Soccer Annual Registration of Players was 3,023,633 with a near equal gender breakdown of boys to girls aged 5-19. A report published by the Wall Street Journal in January 2014 with source metrics from the SFIA/Physical Activity Council and Participation Topline Report found that approximately 6.2 million kids played organized soccer aged 6-18. League estimates for players aged 13-20 put estimations of player participation in the tens of thousands, so even with the vast inlets to other sports, the pool of soccer players is large enough to yield better players. Factor in the non-registered numbers and unreported figures and the number of participants in the sport swells dramatically. So, the issue isn’t a lack of participants, overabundance of sporting choices, or lack of genetic attributes regarding the prototypical U.S. soccer player, so what excuse remains?

One of the most popular reasons proffered by Major League Soccer officials, employees, and fans is the fact the league isn’t even 20-years old yet. Has Major League Soccer increased the exposure of the game in the United States? Yes. Is Major League Soccer the reason soccer is popular in the United States? No. The game has survived and even thrived in various stages and facets since late-19th century immigration influxes solidified the United States as cultural melting pot. The ebb and flow of the game’s popularity will continue to fluctuate regardless of any success at a World Cup or in MLS. The country simply has so many sporting outlets and the juggernaut of the NFL that out-competing advertising and television-friendly sports with stoppages and high scores is damn near impossible. That being said, the sustainability of Major League Soccer as a business entity is cohesive in both progression and ambiguity. However, soccer is no longer a sport that has to be “sold” to American fans and audiences. If anything, America is sold on its affinity for the world’s game played abroad over the domestic product.

The seemingly perpetual defeats to Liga MX sides in the CONCACAF Champions League give credence to the belief that MLS is far from producing a player remotely comparable to a Lionel Messi. With an Orwellian control and influence over mainstream American soccer media and elaborate marketing campaigns that boldly take credit and ownership for anything remotely successful in American soccer, MLS must also attribute and attach itself to the shortcomings of the national state of the game.

Instead of Major League Soccer asking when it will produce its own Lionel Messi, perhaps it is better served asking why it would even attempt such a feat before producing players the caliber of Lionel Messi’s supporting cast at FC Barcelona. The question is coyly guised as a marketing ploy to incite debate and it just might convince people Major League Soccer is capable of producing such a world class player. However, the fact remains that MLS has yet to produce a single world class player, let alone anything near a Lionel Messi. Successful leagues place as much value in development as they do marketing initiatives. Major League Soccer would be well-served to produce its own version of a James Milner before it dreams of producing its own Lionel Messi.

A Place to Call Home

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on April 21, 2014. 

A Place to Call Home

By: Jon Townsend

 

The sunshine, the banging of drums, and the green, blue, and white-paneled Mitre Ultimax soccer ball are images that remind of Saturday, April 6, 1996 in San Jose, California as Major League Soccer kicked off its inaugural season with the San Jose Clash (with their ironically clashing kits) hosted D.C. United at Spartan Stadium. For the first time, I saw an ESPN crew, complete with the big cameras and foamy microphones overhead scramble around the pitch and concourse levels of the stadium. At eleven years of age, I wondered what the men carrying the Plexiglas “shields” were doing on the sidelines (I later learned these were microphones, as well).

My eyes took in the excitement and I yelled, “Dad, look! It’s John Harkes!” while pulling on my father’s arm. I had seen a loaded Brazilian national team train at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw stadium two years earlier as they prepared to face Russia in the 1994 World Cup, but for some reason, this experience was different. These were the American soccer heroes of the time many of whom had returned to the US after successful stints plying their trade in Europe. I couldn’t believe we had a professional league with players who featured in the World Cup. The circus-like atmosphere reached an ear-piercing shriek as Eric Wynalda put the ball through a defender’s legs in D.C. United’s penalty area before clinically placing a shot past D.C.’s goalkeeper, Jeff Causey, into the side netting to score a late winner.

His celebration was perfect—the embodiment of a soccer celebration, sliding on his knees, shirt over his head, fists clenched and pumping. I’ll never forget that experience; being one of the 32,000 supporters jammed into Spartan Stadium where my father and I used to watch San Jose State University play against the other talented collegiate teams from the Bay Area: Santa Clara, Stanford, USF—but how could it be that professional soccer was actually being played, here, in the US? Finally, the sport I loved had a place to call home—or did it?

Over the years, Major League Soccer has gone through the predictable ebb and flow in its effort to sink its teeth into the American and now Canadian sports market. I moved to Chicago a few years later and watched the Chicago Fire play at Soldier Field before the stadium was renovated. The pace of that Fire team coached by Bob Bradley was amazing. It was also a unique blend of American and Eastern European talent that set the league ablaze (pardon the pun). I also remember how small Soldier Field made the game feel. But it was loud. “Section 8” had its diehard fans, The Ultras, who were welcoming but elitist in their efforts to implement a more global supporting style. They didn’t sit during matches; they bounced up and down shouting encouragement at the home players and abuse at the opposition. The [in]famous pre-goal kick chant—composed of the rattling drum line of fists against plastic stadium seats quickening in tempo and intensity leading up to the climactic and resounding, “You suck, Asshole!” shout as the opposing goalkeeper kicked the ball—this was part of being a supporter in our league. There was a passion and fervor that swallowed attendees up in that old and cold stadium defiantly located on the banks of Lake Michigan in the Windy City.

But then, it changed. Everything changed. Stadiums became soccer-specific, which was great. But soccer specific stadiums came at a price. Many of them, including Chicago’s Toyota Park, were difficult to get to and attracted the suburban fan. The soccer moms and minivan crowd filled the seats, sort of. I remember watching a match in Columbus, Ohio as the Crew played against the Fire and noticed so many kids running around the concession stands and concourse levels instead of watching the game. The Crew’s stadium was beautiful. Intimate and well-constructed—but the more soccer-specific the stadia around the league became, the farther the game seemed for the supporters both geographically and emotionally in some respects. But these stadiums, these shrines were what the fans of MLS wanted and needed, but in the advent of league expansion criteria and frequency, the fans must ask questions of a league that seems to bypass strong soccer tradition in markets like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Phoenix in favor of big money injections to markets (like Atlanta and teams in Florida) that typically don’t have strong attendance figures due to a lack of dedicated soccer fans. Atlanta for example, has a demographic that is largely a transplant populous and has seen its NHL franchise accumulate reported losses of $130 million in just over a decade and return to Winnipeg. But soccer is a different beast, or so we all hope.

Since 1996, established teams like D.C. United and the New England Revolution still play in football stadiums. To many of the league’s supporters this isn’t a promising sign. What is more disappointing is the number of teams that have played or currently play on artificial turf. Maybe I’m a purist, but this isn’t gridiron football. The game should be played on natural grass. For a league that wants to attract promising talent while retaining domestic talent, the game needs to be played on natural surfaces. But MLS is a business entity that aims to make money and solidify its financial windfall in any way it can. Investing in turf, albeit expensive as upfront overhead, eliminates the need for a dedicated grounds crew. And of course, turf is “weather proof” so there’s that sell. The naïve fan buys this; the purist does not.

Additionally, each team should have a place to call its own—and many do. It’s tough to watch teams in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, New England, and eventually, Orlando play on artificial turf or with artificially reduced seating capacities. Recent reports suggest the newest franchise in Atlanta will play on artificial turf and will have an artificially reduced seating capacity as it will share the stadium with an NFL team. Other teams subject to this awkward match day reduction include: D.C. United at RFK Stadium: reduced from 47,359 to 19,647; New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium: reduced from 68,756 to 20,000; and the Vancouver White Caps at BC Place: reduced from 54,320 to 21,000.

MLS can be criticized for many things, perhaps its name being one of them. Major League Soccer might suggest there is a Minor League Soccer entity circulating through the veins of interstate highways across the country. Perhaps it’s a beautifully hokey marketing term, one that captures and appeases the American sports audience to this “foreign” sport of soccer. But that’s the low-hanging fruit. It’s tough to actually judge the league for strengthening itself internally on the premise of fiscal responsibility, but Major League Soccer needs to make sure that future expansion clubs have their soccer specific stadiums (SSS) before they start league play. It sends a message to future fans that they will have a place to congregate and call their own, which is paramount for the short and long term success of establishing a dedicated fan base. Adding another team in New York is proof that MLS breaks the very rules it holds other potential expansion locales to and NYCFC meets only one of the three main criteria required by MLS to earn a franchise.

But these are minor points of contention for a league that has a business-focused structure on financial lockdown. A glaring problem is the absence of a cohesive, tiered system in American soccer. The MLS with its aggressive and sometimes blind expansion in the country’s Southeast region (where the two defunct teams were from in the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny) has perhaps reached a point that a self-imposed ceiling has to be implemented. The USL-Pro league is home to 15 teams with Orlando SC soon to be joining MLS taking the projected number down to 14. Another aspect of MLS’ business model in such a vast country might suggest that in time, MLS can be split into two entities, MLS “A” and MLS “B” for the future implementation of promotion/relegation system seen elsewhere around the world.

The keen observer has to wonder if MLS is biting more than it can chew as there are still three unresolved stadium issues: DC, New England, and now NYCFC. Additionally, the league has to run Chivas USA, which is embarrassing. With the possible expansion franchise in Miami pending stadium-related issues and the recently announced plans for a team in Atlanta, the league will have four new clubs in the next three or four years and yet, stadium issues remain a focal point. Eventually, as MLS has seen in some markets, the fever from expansion-related revenue streams will run out. Surely, MLS cannot see itself returning to days each franchise counted concessions and ticket stubs and a meager television revenue figures to sustain the league.

Arthur Blank is certain to pay a hefty expansion fee between the $70 million charged to Orlando City and the $100 million paid by Manchester City F.C. and the New York Yankees for New York City FC, which means both Orlando and NYCFC will begin play next year. The most obvious way to understand expansion is to view MLS as a buy-in club where cash is king—especially upfront. There’s nothing wrong with strong capitalism running the expansion of MLS from a business perspective, but from a sporting perspective many question the almost blatant circumvention of the very requirements put in place for expansion teams. Much like the growing problem seen at the grassroots level, MLS has become a pay-to-play enterprise, but perhaps there is no other way to grow the league.

Watching soccer in stadium built for baseball is less than ideal. Based off summer preseason attendance figures from the Guinness International Champions Cup in previous years, the stadiums sold substantial ticket amounts, but that was for internationally established powerhouses of the world game, which are themselves global brands. With all due respect, this is MLS, and like every American multicultural urban epicenter, how New York responds to NYCFC will be a big test for a club in a country where diehard fans are more familiar with leagues around the world and who still see MLS as a minor league they don’t fully support, yet. If the team is sharing a stadium with American football or baseball the atmosphere is compromised. Another fair point is although the New York Yankees have part ownership, the baseball season occurs on at the same time as MLS. The pitch will be less than ideal all season for both teams and the baseball team is the key stakeholder at Yankee Stadium.

The fact remains that Major League Soccer is proof that ardent and disciplined investing practices can move mountains and pave highways for a sport that’s struggled to establish itself as a serious contender in the North American sports landscape. Contrary to many a misguided belief, MLS doesn’t aim to uproot or displace the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but rather to continue to strengthen its infrastructure and expand into the niche markets of the sport. The biggest problem soccer faces in America is not Major League Soccer, but viability and distribution of strength, talent, and opportunities for grow in a cohesive tiered system that would see Major League Soccer become America’s Premier League, NASL become The Championship, and USL Pro America’s League 1. Whatever evolutionary path soccer in North America takes, the young boy who was part of the 32,000 excited fans crammed into Spartan Stadium in San Jose in April of 1996 is now a man and part of a generation that has grown up with MLS—and it sure has come a long way.