By Paul Gardner
It ought to be possible, from now on, to get a clear, undistorted view of what is happening in MLS. So far, the league’s season has been pretty much of a mess, overshadowed one minute by the Olympic Games, almost blotted out the next by what I’ll call "summer soccer."
The Olympics have been nearly three weeks of all-consuming TV presence -- but a legitimate presence, of longer and higher standing than MLS, a once-every-four-years event that can be lived with.
But not a word of what I have just said in acceptance of the Olympics can be said of the summer soccer games. These are blatantly money-making tours by (mostly) European clubs. They fit in perfectly with the current obsession for celebrity events -- highly publicized and absurdly over-priced happenings with nothing more real than exhibitionism at their core.
They shouldn’t be counted as soccer events at all -- in fact the sponsors of the biggest circuit of these games do not use the word soccer -- preferring the title World Football Challenge. A choice of word that tells you quite a lot about the brains behind the games -- and what they think of American soccer and MLS.
Among those brains we have Charlie Stillitano, a thorough, and much respected, soccer man who now works for Creative Artists Agency (CAA) sports division, where he heads up the soccer interests ... including the World Football Challenge.
Not that long ago Stillitano was an independent promoter who ran the Champions World tournament -- that was also a summer-soccer extravaganza. It failed, but it rattled the MLS biggies by showing that there was money to be made by staging games featuring top European teams. Games that took attention away from MLS games -- and quite possibly diverted fans and money too. Suddenly, Stillitano was persona non grata whose name could not be mentioned in MLS circles without being festooned with cuss words.
The obloquy did not last long. MLS had gotten the message: There was money in them thar tours. Through its own promotional arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), it began to bring in famous teams -- to play games in the summer. In direct competition with its own MLS games. After a year of competition (2009) between SUM and Stillitano -- now running the WFC for CAA -- the competitive spirit was abandoned, all was forgiven, and the two groups joined forces, the better to exploit the pockets of the nation’s soccer fans.
Whether those fans are also fans of MLS is very doubtful. Whenever European teams show up on the U.S. scene, it is the signal for the Eurosnob fans to forsake the boozy TV bars where they normally gather and flock to the stadiums. There we find masses of otherwise intelligent middle-aged fans decked up in the shirts of “their” clubs, buying tickets at prices anything up to 10 or even 20 times what they would pay for an MLS game.
And there’s the rub. Because the Eurosnob doesn’t buy tickets to MLS games, he wouldn’t pay a cent to go to an MLS game. The snob in him prevents his presence at something he regards as a hopelessly inferior product, an ersatz American attempt at the sport, carried out under that dreadful name soccer.
When the Euro-celeb teams arrive here and find themselves at the center of mindless adulation, their response -- a natural one, I’d guess -- is to become patronizing and tell us, in oleaginous tones, how surprisingly well we’re doing at their sport -- although we’re not there yet, of course, oh no -- hence the need, so graciously met by England’s Chelsea for one, to supply coaching expertise. Even before that, certain U.S. youth clubs have been “granted the honor of playing in Chelsea kit.” Then comes “the opportunity to train with Chelsea coaches.”
If you’re a devout Eurosnob such treatment presumably borders on heaven. Should you not be quite so en-snobbed, it’s worthwhile asking what expertise Chelsea youth coaches have to offer -- considering that the vast majority of Chelsea’s first team players have been bought from other clubs. (Of the Chelsea starting 11 in Sunday’s Community Shield game against Manchester City, only John Terry has any claim to being a Chelsea product -- and he spent the first three years of his youth training at West Ham United).
You might think that the brains at SUM and CAA would be thinking of ways to encourage their Eurosnob clientele to show more interest in the American MLS. You might -- and you would be resoundingly wrong. The proof takes us back to that title -- the World Football Challenge. Why football and not soccer? Because the CAA and SUM people have covertly sided with the Eurosnobs. They don’t want to irritate them by talking of soccer. Hence the snobbery takes over, and we get football.
And we get a bigger anomaly. These summer games, be they either soccer or football, have not been particularly good. Surely, snobbery has its limits? Just how long the snobbery factor will permit the Eurosnobs to pay through their upturned noses to watch farcical games involving massively disruptive substitution?
SUM, as a partner of MLS, might be asking itself what MLS takes from a game in which the Los Angeles Galaxy -- which has some pretty important MLS games to worry about -- is wiped out 5-1 by Real Madrid? A game in which both teams made 11 substitutions at halftime.
Not just the Galaxy, of course. And not just MLS. The problem of Eurosnobbery pervades the entire American soccer scene. Pervades and divides it. And by doing so, obstructs it progress. So, CAA brains and SUM brains, thanks for all your help in promoting American soccer.