The Angle

Death to the Myth of MLS 4.0

by on 22 November 2017

Are we in MLS 4.0, yet? Have we moved past the academy revolution of 3.0 and the designated player plus supporters culture iteration of 2.0? The only thing that remains clear is that we have not transcended the delusional Silicon Valley fad of speaking of American soccer in terms of teleological progress. Anthony Precourt, however, can murder that notion.

The Columbus Crew look increasingly destined to move to Austin, Texas and we are all to blame. Correction, the arch-weasel Anthony Precourt is to blame for lying to fans and selling them out, the MLS owners who silently acquiesce are to blame, but way down that list are the rest of the MLS fans.

Too many MLS fans have succumbed to a dangerous myth, a myth that started so innocently, but perverted into a grotesque. “American soccer fans are building something,” we have told ourselves. Every day fans write blogs, make tifo, and create the culture that grows the entire sport. This self-less delusion has been a spectacular one; it is the good kind of delusion, allowing us to throw off our cares and just make things because it is fun. American soccer culture is truly unique, DIY, and spontaneous.

But it is this concept of “building” that has become twisted around itself. The process of building implies a teleological pursuit, imagining a finished project we are building toward. Sometimes that final goal gets named: winning a World Cup or having one of the top leagues in the world.

Having goals and aspirations is a good thing. It is when those goals supplant the actual process of building that becomes a problem. Building, then, is broken up by metrics for assessing that goal. And then the joy of building, the excitement of making something becomes merely a planned project increment, something upon which to be assessed quarterly.

MLS X.0

When Atlanta made its remarkable debut in MLS this season, it was time for a new system release increment. MLS 4.0 has arrived! This new release features soccer in football stadium, a feature of MLS 1.0, but this time upgraded with more fans! It featured spending lots of money on players, a feature of MLS 2.0 and 3.0, but this time on Latino players! (Note: I am using Atlanta as only the most recent MLS debutante “game-changer.”)

The myth of the X.0 new iterations of MLS helps fans and pundits mark a certain kind of growth. However, it is self-delusion to imagine this along some sort of teleological scale of progress (growth doesn’t always imply upward). Bringing in former Barcelona manager Tata Martino was a unique choice for Atlanta and one that paid off, but it isn’t as if no MLS team had ever tried to put former head coach of a European club in charge. Does anyone remember former Chelsea and Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit, or was MLS just not ready for MLS 4.0 back then?

Likewise, the signing of Miguel Almiron was inspired and he has been a fantastic addition to the league. But it isn’t as if no MLS general manager had thought, “We should really try to sign a young Latino player” before. What does Miguel Almiron bring to the league that wasn’t there when Marco Etcheverry played?

These incremental, iteration arguments of MLS X.0 are fun thought experiments to see the ways in which the league goes through changes. Often they are more of a reflection of the “Rah-Rah” journalism that surrounds and cheer-leads for the league (this gets blamed on fans too often, but it is widespread and often more common amongst the professional wings of the soccer media world). Take this mind-boggling idea that Atlanta is a new blueprint for MLS expansion.

Where these X.0 myths become insidious, self-defeating lies is that they imply both a teleology and a false sense of being able to compare teams in stages. How could Atlanta’s “blue-print” possibly be replicable in Nashville, Cincinnati, or any of the other potential expansion cities?

Fallen behind

And here is where we return to the Columbus Crew. Michael Bradley has been getting push-back for his comments after the semi-final in Columbus on Tuesday. He told reporters:

“Look, on the one hand you feel for the small group of loyal supporters that they have…. On the other hand, you cannot deny the fact that things here have really fallen behind in terms of the atmosphere in the stadium, the quality of the stadium…. As the league has continued to grow and grow… this is one of a few markets that has not kept pace.”

That Bradley should be taking flak is not surprising, but no one should be surprised by his sentiment, since it is widely held throughout the league administrators.

It is only natural that observers make comparisons between teams, particularly expansion teams. Minnesota suffered from its comparisons to Atlanta as the latter put on a lavish display of NFL wealth that made the cadre of millionaire and billionaire Minnesota owners look like paupers.

Reasonable, rational-minded observers can look at the differences between Minnesota and Atlanta and reject the idea that one is more “advanced” than the other while at the same time saying one is perhaps more ambitious. In two years, the Loons will be playing in a state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadium while Atlanta will be playing on turf in a football stadium. Once-upon a time, that would have made Minnesota more “advanced” than Atlanta. And yet here we are.

To be sure, Columbus has struggled over recent years off the pitch (even as it thrives on the pitch). It is toward the bottom of most corporate league-wide metrics like sponsorship and attendance. Now, an intrepid Crew fan has created this fantastic powerpoint to explain that Anthony Precourt’s ownership has been to blame for many of these problems.

However, we should reject outright the premise of this argument. Columbus’ metro area population is ranked 33rd in the country, ahead of only San Jose and Salt Lake City in cities with an MLS team. Why, then, should anyone be surprised that it would have less sponsorship money than other clubs? If you look at the list of MLS cities and teams you would absolutely expect Columbus to be near the bottom. In fact, it would be even more of a problem if a market like Columbus could out-perform Dallas or Denver.

It isn’t just that the Columbus experiment (like Chivas USA) isn’t working out. Rather, it is a warning to every group of fans: if the front office of the team you support isn’t doing a good enough job, you should expect to lose your team.

Furthermore, as MLS has continued to grow, particularly in recent years, it has moved into key major markets. Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, and Orlando are all big markets, flush with the kind of cash that Columbus does not have. So of course, Columbus is being left behind.

But the problem with Bradley’s comments (and the widely-held sentiment they express) is that they express consequences as naturally following his observation. “You cannot deny…” he says as he points out Columbus being left behind by the league’s newcomers. Bradley indicates a tacit agreement that because Columbus is toward the bottom in these off-the-pitch metrics, the league might be forgiven for wanting to move the team.

The sinister cynicism behind this idea is galling and represents the far more dangerous belief in MLS. It isn’t just that the Columbus experiment (like Chivas USA) isn’t working out. Rather, it is a warning to every group of fans: if the front office of the team you support isn’t doing a good enough job, you should expect to lose your team.

A look around the league reveals a good number of teams that can be said to have been “left behind.” Dallas’ attendance problems continue; Salt Lake City is a small market; the Colorado Rapids limp on in the back corners of our minds; the Union are owned by shallow pockets and play well outside of Philadelphia; the Revolution frequently plays to a tiny crowd in a shallow sea of empty seats. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for your team.

A turning point

In a previous article, I wrote that MLS’ acquiescence to Precourt’s attempted move to Austin represents a galling betrayal of trust from the fans. This feeling only increases as this debacle continues.

The lack of response from MLS or any of its owners to what has become a large, nationally shared sentiment indicates a futility underlying this entire process.

Gigantic TIFO is ephemeral and like soccer only matters because someone wants it to. That people make money off these efforts is not a problem, that they take it from us in the process is appalling.

Supporters groups can and should stand up. They should pledge to boycott any game (including at home) involving a team moved from Columbus to Austin. Whether or not that will change minds matters less at this point than speaking the only language weasels like Precourt understand: money. And owners should start to recognize that allowing Precourt to have his way will actually affect their teams and relationships to their fans.

But most of all, let us finally kill this tired myth of progress. What has been built and what will continue to be built in American soccer is not a staircase. It is not an incremental release of new software.

What we have been building all along is a colossal and intrepid Rube Goldberg machine. Being a fan is an ultimately meaningless act and fun precisely for that reason. Gigantic TIFO is ephemeral and like soccer only matters because someone wants it to. That people make money off these efforts is not a problem, that they might take it from us in the process is appalling.

Fan passion is the primary selling point to differentiate MLS from the other sports leagues in this country. By pimping out fans, MLS runs the risk of auctioning off its chief asset and becoming just a less efficient NFL. If any MLS owner or president thinks Precourt’s actions matter only to fans in Ohio, they are sorely mistaken. This is perhaps one of the most crucial moments in the league’s history and so far there has been a deafening silence from everyone in power.


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  • Tim Reppe

    Players can be sold, management comes & goes, & stadiums are built with new home pitches. But the essence of a club is its supporters. Those that create purpose for the above. They curate the memory of the namesake. If Precourt wants to try a soccer business in Austin, unless he wants to move all the fans, he has to leave the Crew in Columbus & create a new name.

    • PotomacTebo

      One would wonder, if the Crew brand is such a lame duck, why would he want to bring it to Austin and not rebrand instead?

      • fredmertz

        Who says he’d transplant the brand?

        • eboe thrasher

          He most likely won’t be allowed to do so, seeing as how San Jose kept the brand when the team headed to Texas. That will be two teams that head to the state where the team with the worst attendance in the league is. Those business metrics, awesome.

  • Bobby Kope Kopras

    Business metrics are one thing, but how can Michael Bradley have played in that game – in that flag-waving, shouting mass of FANatics – and say right afterward that Columbus’ fan have fallen behind in “ATMOSPHERE?????” He’s a liar, an MLS apologist, and was most likely attacking Columbus fans for booing him out of the stadium with their “ATMOSPHERE!!!” This is the lowest form of selfish scum and his commentary can be dismissed. Also, Precourt and MLS aren’t just pimping out the fans, they’re also catfishing the support in Austin by running their support page from Columbus and deleting any comments on that page that support #SaveTheCrew. They have fake FB accounts that represent fake fans in Austin that post comments of support, etc. They are also liars and by doing that deleting and catfishing, they are lying to the fans of MLS that they are attempting to impress. This is the most dastardly, evil part of their campaign to steal away what has been the face of MLS and US soccer for many years. Without Columbus, their fans, and Crew Stadium, soccer in North America would never have been able to FINALLY have shed its training wheels after decades of failure to do so. Columbus was the obvious catalyst of MLS.X+1 and they certainly should not be punished for making the league grow. It’s the child being nurtured, then murdering the parent.

  • Philip Rivers

    I actually was reluctant to read this article, but it really did a solid job encompassing the problem that everyone knew would plague MLS one day; money destroys authenticity, am I right Austin?

  • Troy Kadlec

    I’m not sure it should surprise anyone that an owner might want a return from their investment. If the primary argument against moving the team is based on money, then the primary driver’s of that argument need to be looked at. The bottom line for any sports team is the number of fans consistently at the games. At no point has the support for the Crew come close to it’s potential. It’s easy to point to the location or the ownership, but what it boils down to is that fans don’t show up and WON’T show up unless they are catered to. What the fans in most places seems to want currently is craft breweries, nifty bars, cool restaurants, easy access, public transportation, and anything else they can cram into an easy 6-8 block walk.

    Very, very few places like this exist without significant barriers to that plan. Of the places in Columbus that might be available, the curernt owners aren’t looking to sell. They have their own plans. This is where the local governments tend to get involved to hammer out a solution. Columbus wants the Crew to do all that work and present a proposal. The Crew want the city to provide a proposal. Neither wants to budge. In the end, nobody seems convinced that the deal is worth the hassle.
    While Austin may not have much more in population to offer, it does have a lot of the other factors that are more favorable to an owner. The city of Austin appears willing to work with the team to secure a favorable location. There are NO other competing major sports franchises. The growth rate of educated millenials in the core city is significantly higher in Austin than Columbus (Forbes). In terms of diversity, Austin is significantly ahead of Columbus.

    When you are looking at growing a business, you look at the best and worst case scenarios. You already know the base in Columbus will not make your investment grow. You know the upward mobility is limited by a number of factors, many of which are not in the ownerships control (influence maybe, but not control). You look at alternatives and find maybe some more risk, but a more friendly environment with a significant potential for a bigger return is hard for any investor to ignore.

    I don’t think Precourt is a saint or a demon in this situation. He’s an investor. I also don’t see fans as investors. They are customers. Investment implies a potential measurable rate of return. Customers buy something for the benefit they perceive it gives them. I sympathize with the Crew supporters who face losing a team. But, I do think that MLS is a business first and foremost and that any sense of ownership the fans feel for a given professional team is an illusion. Do the teams and the league foster that sense of pride and community to build their customer base? Absolutely! But sometimes the risk of backlash and the resultant impacts of “betraying” that sense are outweighed by the potential benefits of change. It is the owners of the teams that ultimately have to decide that and we all deal with the fallout.
    Good luck with a boycott. You are unlikely to hurt anyone but the teams you love. You are also unlikely to sustain that for the minimum 3-5 years it would take to convince MLS they might have made a bad decision. You have to hope the impact outweighs the impact of even one wildly successful expansion franchise in the same timeframe. You have to hope that the Austin team fails and that would be even worse for the MLS as a whole.

    Big money owners don’t invest to lose. They accept short term losses for long term gain. If the long term gain is in doubt, then the willingness to accept risk increases.

    I’d like to see the Crew stay in Columbus for nostalgic reasons. I’d prefer Precourt sold the team, but he loses then too as he has to try an find an owner who will accept the situation as it is and is unlikely to change. I won’t stop going to a MN United game if they play a team moved from Columbus to Austin.

  • MmattN

    What can the owners do at this point in time? At the time of the sale of the team to Precourt the option for him to move the team was placed in the contract. Should the owners ignore the agreed upon terms? I don’t mean to ask this as support for the move, or to be flippant but honestly wonder at this point in time what can the owners actually can do about the move to stop it.

    • eboe thrasher

      The owners have to approve the move. It’s not something taken lightly in the league. I believe it requires a full 3/4 of the league to sign off on the move. I would hope Precourt doesn’t get a vote, and honestly Hunt Sports Group shouldn’t either, as there could have been a buyoff of the vote included in the sale price…

      • MmattN

        Ahhh. I did not know this and thought since Austin was part of his purchase agreement the owners were stuck. Thank you for the information.