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.
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?
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.
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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