When a stateside soccer fan is coming down from the high of Portugal’s improbable run to European domination, or Chile gleefully chomp their way through the Copa America Centenario, they are faced with an important, nearly existential question: is MLS worth it? This leads to follow-ups quickly, such as “why should I watch a Michael Bradley-less Toronto travel to San Jose?” or “How much fun is spending my Saturday afternoon chained to a screen showing me Columbus?”
The answer to the first one, for you and for me and for a whole lot more people out there, is “yes.” And the answer to the rest is, to paraphrase Wu-Tang, simple. MLS is for the people.
Not just in a simple, logistics way, either. Sure, if you’re somewhere in the States, MLS is dramatically less expensive than catching a football game or a FIFA event in your thousand-mile radius. It’s also as casual or intense an affair as you want it to be. Some stadiums have food trucks. Others have flares. MLS is pretty catch-as-catch can. That’s a compliment.
You might miss Michael Bradley, but you also can catch Jordan Hamilton. The 20-year-old has been insanely exciting, a target forward who can keep up with reigning MVP/”Tyrion Lannister-on-speed” Sebastian Giovinco. What’s more, since Hamilton is Canadian, groan-worthy Broadway puns don’t stick to him.
He’s not the only one. Every team has some youngster to grow up with, or to see your kids grow up with, or geez — even grandkids. Not all of them are going to turn into the next Clint Dempsey but nearly all of them are going to turn into something interesting. And without the layers of gloss covering each and every facet of the league, the players are approachable on a human scale.
Take Wil Trapp, who has gone from future engine of the USMNT to just another struggling 23-year-old in the course of a couple years. The difference is less Trapp hitting a wall and more him encountering new puzzles. It was easier to pick out devastating long balls when the front four of Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara was deadly. Now they’re balky, Trapp has had to deal with a new playing style, and has found himself on the outside of a crowded American midfield. It’s worth tuning into what’s a deservedly last-place team to see how a great national team hope solves an incredibly complex Rubik’s Cube. And the person who many pegged to be the next national team coach, Gregg Berhalter, has to save his own job by helping Trapp solve it.
The mixture of compelling storylines and open accessibility is unique to the league, which allows for many points of entry. If MLS is for the people, after all, they have to decide who “the people” are.
The league started as a suburbs-friendly destination sport, and looking around the stadium today you’ll still see plenty of khaki-shorted parents and their mop-headed broods. And some teams, particularly the Cascadians, have been smart to leverage the Landon Donovan-led 2002 World Cup run into greater interest from the bearded masses. It doesn’t hurt that the Premier League starts at 4am on West Coast mornings.
This might explain the brighter spotlights out west, which have led to maybe-better, definitely-different relationships between teams and their fans in those time zones. San Jose, for example, went from having homophobic chants to sponsoring a Pride Night (and having bilingual TV spots telling fans to shape up) in a matter of weeks. Self-identifying bear subculture supporters groups live peaceably next to…whatever stereotypes you want to form around the several thousand Oakland Raiders fans who are summering at Avaya Stadium.
It’s a blank slate for a soccer fan in a way that the Euros or Copa America certainly aren’t. The ability to watch young players grow and figure things out, or see coaches scream silently when their best-laid plans go to seed, isn’t rare in the soccer world. But the chance to watch it so close, for so little, and in your time zone makes MLS into a pearl. The response to which is usually, from MLS die-hards, “Support your Local.” Good enough advice, but note that the prescription doesn’t say how. That much, thankfully, is up to you, the antsy spectator with a long summer ahead.
This post was composed by freelance writer and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at:@AJKhn. Catch up with all of the latest MLS happenings on SiriusXM FC.
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