By Paul Gardner
American soccer’s long-standing habit of truckling to things English flourishes yet.
You can get the message by tuning in, any time, to the Fox Soccer Channel, where you will find the word “football” used repeatedly, coaches will be called managers, games (or rather matches) are played on pitches, not fields, and there will be forelock-tugging references to the “laws” of the game. Players -- including those playing the archaic position of center-half -- wear boots.
Shutouts are unheard of on Fox, replaced by the utterly fatuous “clean sheets” -- all this against a background of overwhelming interest in the English Premier League as though no other league matters that much.
Overlooking the rather childish silliness that lies behind this ignorant snobbery, this determination to sound informed, one can ask the serious question: is anyone at Fox (or ESPN that matter, which is equally sycophantic when it comes to Anglophilia) the slightest bit interested in promoting soccer as an Americangame?
The evidence says, clearly, No. Well, admittedly, in the short-term that is not the aim of the TV companies. Simply getting people to watch their telecasts is all that matters. The good EPL games should do that. The poor EPL games, of which there are plenty, are, of course, never mentioned, or rather are never identified as poor. They must surely be a drag on the patience of even the most devoted viewer. I’m not at all sure how repeated airings of a so-called documentary about Liverpool (really nothing more than a reverential Liverpool FC promo) help, either. But there we are -- if Fox has been consciously engaged in building up an Anglo audience, maybe even something as tedious and tendentious as that helps the cause.
Leaving the offices of the TV guys, we now zoom off to New York’s Fifth Avenue, to alight in the palatial MLS headquarters. Now, here, for sure, is an organization that doeshave an interest in presenting soccer as a truly American sport, in trying to demonstrate that soccer is a part of the overall American way of doing things in sports, and that does things that the generalized “sports fan” (assuming there is such an animal) can instantly recognize.
Like having an annual player draft. Just like the NFL and the NBA. Even better, a SuperDraft. An occasion that allows Commissioner Don Garber to make his yearly remarks about all the great young American players coming through. Presumably, SuperPlayers for a SuperDraft. If only. Garber has a problem here -- not one of his own making, but one that he seems determined to ignore. The problem, of course, is college soccer. As long as the college game continues to be a thoroughly inadequate pathway to the pro game, and as long as the MLS draft draws overwhelmingly from the college ranks, the huge contradiction remains in place.
One can have sympathy for MLS and Garber. In the absence of an alternative to college soccer as a training ground for American youngsters, what else can Garber do other than to support the showily American -- but increasingly meaningless -- draft?
I see no chance, in any foreseeable future, of college soccer serving as a reliable pipeline for American talent -- rather the opposite, really, as it continues to lure young talent to its lotus fields.
All this is disappointing, because Garber knows full well the shortcomings of college soccer. MLS, to its credit, has made a series of moves -- such as Project-40, Generation adidas, the MLS reserve league, regulation changes to encourage clubs to develop their own young players -- clearly designed to lessen the influence of the college game.
It will be a slow process, but these moves are at least aimed at helping the development of young Americans, at pushing soccer forward as an American activity.
But MLS cannot escape the accusation of swooning in the British orbit. I suppose -- I trust -- we are now over the worst of MLS’s Beckham worship. It really ought to have sunk in by now that Brits have little interest in, or knowledge of, American soccer. And certainly no respect.
A recent example comes from one of London’s leading tabloids, the Daily Mirror. MLS, the Mirror informs us, wants to use Beckham to recruit EPL stars to come to the States; it mentions Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch and Michael Carrick as targets. And why would they (hardly an irresistible trio, I’d say) want to come to MLS?
The Mirror explains by quoting “an MLS source” -- “With the wages, lifestyle, and anonymity the world’s top soccer players have playing in the MLS, it makes it an ideal destination for them to finish their careers.”
The MLS source is not named. Of course not -- who would want his name on that spectacular drivel? But then I do not believe that anyone at MLS ever made those remarks. There may be plenty of tangled thinking at MLS, but none that would produce a statement disparaging its own league in this obvious way.
Rather, this is a statement that faithfully reflects British views of American soccer and of MLS. Through those trans-Atlantic eyes, the American soccer scene is such a desert that no one in this country will recognize “the world’s top” stars, who can therefore live comfortably and anonymously. And MLS is an ideal place for aging players “to finish their careers.” An elephant’s graveyard. American soccer, in other words, is not to be taken seriously. Merely a dumping ground for over-the-hill English players, and a nice peaceful, well-paid holiday for them once they get here.
The views expressed are those of a self-appointedly superior soccer culture demeaning American efforts, views from the residents of a country where MLS games get televised, if at all, in the middle of the night.
To imagine someone, anyone, from MLS advocating such a view of the league is simply nonsensical. This is an English version of MLS, one that ought to have disappeared long ago -- after all, MLS now has a 17-year history to contradict those Brit imputations that it is a rinky-dink setup.
The only difficulty that arises from this is that MLS apparently does not feel itself strong enough to tell the Brits where they can put their criticism. Or simply to tell them that, until they know what they’re talking about, they should shut up.