It's about that time of the year again! Timber Joey is gassing up his chainsaw, Thierry Henry is stretching those creaking joints, and Michael Bradley is getting ready to lace up his boots, the prodigal son back on (well, North) American soil after so many years away. Yep, Major League Soccer, the land of has-beens and never-weres, is about to start back up, and nobody cares.
In theory, this year's campaign should be the most interesting season of American soccer offered up since the heyday of the New York Cosmos. In reality, MLS is still a second-tier product, full of dull play and even less compelling players, with a top-down league ownership structure that neuters real competition and an obnoxious, proselytizing hardcore fanbase. All of this makes the idea of following the league just as offensive as it's always been.
First, we'll throw MLS a bone and mention some of the aspects that do make this season different than the rest. Mainly, they involve player transfers. Chief among the acquisitions is Michael Bradley, who recently transferred to Toronto FC from Italian club Roma. The move's appeal for MLS is as obvious as it is immense: America's league is now home to the country's best player, and, in fact, three of the top four. This is good for MLS; while it's long sold itself as the place for Americans to watch the faded greatness of half-dead legends accompanied by lesser players from around the Americas, it's never been shy about its ambitions of becoming the home of America's stars.
Usually this has translated into MLS cultivating young talents like Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Brek Shea before shipping them to Europe so they can prove themselves at the highest level. In Landon Donovan, they've had the best American of his generation home for almost the entirety of his career. Now, in Bradley, they have the next iteration of that, a U.S. international of proven top-tier ability back on our continent—why couldn't he have gone to an American team so I wouldn't have to keep hedging like this?—for his prime years.
On the other hand, what the fuck are you thinking, Michael? Yeah, you were already the fourth man in a three-man midfield, and probably dropped to fifth when Roma brought in Radja Nainggolan, but surely somebody else in Europe would've picked you up. You could've walked into a number of mid-table English starting 11s, maybe helped Jozy find his footing at Sunderland, or maybe joined another decent-to-good Serie A club like the Chievo Verona side Roma plucked you from. In short, you had options, man!
And I thought you had ambition. Jürgen is always going on about wanting his players to test themselves at the highest level. You were right on the cusp! That Roma side you left looks a shoo-in for automatic qualification in the Champions League group stage, a comfortable six points with a game in hand over third place Napoli. Oh, and Nainggolan, whom many saw as your replacement for the primary backup midfield role? He's often starting. You could've had class. You could've been a contender. You could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what you are, let's face it.
Bradley isn't the only high-profile transfer being welcomed into the fold. Toronto FC—on a mission to become the next MLS superclub—has also purchased the services of former Tottenham man Jermain Defoe and Brazil's number 1, Júlio César. Defoe looks like a quality signing in the mold of Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, guys who accept that they are no longer real stars but still have enough innate talent and veteran guile to dominate in MLS; César was really just looking anywhere for playing time after riding the bench in the English Championship. It's no coincidence, and probably says a lot about MLS's standing in world soccer, that the three biggest buys coming into the season were in large part facilitated by players' desire for a World Cup tune up.
This will also be the first full season for USMNT captain Clint Dempsey, who must be anxious to prove that last year's up-and-down campaign and unsuccessful run with Fulham had more to do with rust and new-league acclimation than with the fact that he's soon to be 31. His Sounders and sometimes USMNT partner Eddie Johnson has moved on, with Kenny Cooper brought in to—wait, who cares? Dempsey will either look like the Dempsey we remember and they'll succeed, or he won't and they'll lose.
There are probably a number of other "important" things to know coming into the new year that only diehards, people being paid to watch, masochists, or some combination of the three could tell you about, but since I am none of those, I have no idea. Why watch MLS anyways? It's blatantly inferior soccer. The style of play is best described as workmanlike and antithetical to the sport's appeal, the promise of witnessing a moment or two of individual brilliance imposing order on the chaos of the pitch. It's a league of mini-USMNTs—sides with lots of spunk, determination, and grit—but when those quintessential American virtues aren't contrasted against the beautiful (though hopefully conquerable) styles of true soccer powers, it's like watching a build-off between two carpenters who specialize in picnic tables. Sure, one of them is going to win, but who wants to watch it happen?
If that's too metaphorical, we can get into specifics of what makes MLS so shitty. Mainly it's about the the dearth of individual creativity. There will always be the occasional 40-yard cracker that awes the crowd, but how often do we see passages like these two Arsenal goals? Are there even times where inventive one-touch passing like that gets a guy in scoring position before he misses the chance? And how about anything like Messi here, one man completely shredding an entire defense? Not so much, eh?
Contributing to this lack of intricate passing is the poor first touch of the players. Being able to receive a ball screaming at you from 30 yards away and deaden its momentum so that it falls just inches from your feet, all while a defender hounds you from behind, is both an impressive feat of coordination and a mandatory skill for world-class soccer. MLS players just can't do that. The game is full of fortunate miscontrols, where a ball will happen to spin off a dangled foot at a strange angle and into the path of an attacker, more out of happenstance than intent. Then there's the fact that much of the season takes place in the sweltering heat of summer, when the temperature and humidity make it impossible to compete at peak physical ability.
And the on-field problems with the sport are only one part of what makes the league so hateable. While the heat robs the players of their ability to physically compete, the perverse MLS ownership structure makes it impossible to for any team to get a real advantage from its cleverness and ingenuity. MLS isn't run like most professional sports leagues in America or even Europe. Instead of individual owners buying or starting teams of their own, MLS owns all of the teams in the league. The nominal owners of the individual teams make most of the day-to-day decisions but ultimately it's the MLS front office that has final say on the big decisions. All those conspiracy theories about how the NBA office is constantly figuring out new ways to fuck over the league for the benefit of big market teams are pretty much a given in MLS. Hey, the Galaxy have always been good, so let's keep shipping them as many Designated Players as we can! The favored teams can't be too good, though, or no one else would have any hope.
(As an example, take the convoluted Landon Donovan saga, where he was signed out of high school by Bayer Leverkusen and then loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes for a four-year stretch, after which Leverkusen exercised a buyback provision only to sell him back to MLS a couple months later, a deal that saw the MLS-controlled Galaxy—rivals of the Earthquakes, who for some stupid reason no longer owned Donovan's MLS rights—traded with MLS-controlled FC Dallas, who had the first allocation rights to any new players for being the worst team in the league the previous year, for the right to sign Donovan. It's not for nothing that some Earthquake fans still consider him a traitor. The Dempsey signing was similar.)
Toronto FC has sucked for a long time, but hey, that's a big city, and its ownership group is led by Tim Leiweke, former CEO of AEG. (You know, the former sort-of owners of the Earthquakes when they first got Donovan, then sort-of owners of the Galaxy when he returned to MLS.) He's done well with big talent in big cities; let's give them Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe! What, are the MLS-owned Chicago Fire going to complain about the MLS-owned Toronto FC's good fortune?
As stupid as all of that is, it could maybe, possibly be overlooked with the right kind of fan experience. Hell, a bunch of people around the country show up to minor-league baseball games, even if it's mostly for the dollar dogs and beers. Unfortunately, MLS fails there, too. To be fair, the average MLS fan is an eminently reasonable one, content to mingle with friends and family outdoors while watching a sport being played not-terribly before their eyes. But then there's everyone else.
It's not the average guy drinking a beer and rooting on the local 11 that makes the MLS experience so insufferable. It's the diehard true believer, enacting his worst Europhiliac impulses by aping the behavior of European fútbol fans as if it were something other than the product of a specific cultural history. The league panders to this cosplay with its ridiculous, at times downright un-American names. (I mean, Real Salt Lake? Didn't we toss a few crates of tea in the Boston Harbor as an explicit "Fuck you!" to fucking royalty?) How is it more "authentic" and more "fútbol" to call a team Football Club Dallas when the league itself is called Major League Soccer? The blame for this stupidity would be all on MLS but for my sneaking suspicion that they only did it because they rightly believed that the demographic they wanted would buy in.
That desired demo was the trendy types who believe everything that is done better across the pond, and MLS certainly succeeded in winning their hearts. The American soccer fan experience in general is defined by annoying factual minutiae one-upmanship and British catchphrase-stealing, but somehow MLS fans are even worse than those assholes at your local Liverpool bar. Not only do they have the fake cultural superiority complex that tells them they're cool because they watch a sport most of the country doesn't give a fuck about, but they compound it with an evangelical streak that would even frighten some religious fundamentalists. "Yeah, I bet you don't watch real fútbol which makes me cooler than you, but also, why don't you start, bro? We're out here helping grow the world's game, one chant at a time! Wait, you do watch soccer but not the MLS? Then you aren't a real fan, man! You don't get the gameday experience, which is what true soccer fandom requires."
It sounds ridiculous, but Alexi Lalas has made this exact argument. While his criticisms of annoying Eurosnob soccer fans are on point, they have nothing to do with MLS's quality as a league. No one should feel obligated to watch shitty American soccer out of solidarity. If there's a better product available, consume it; the local one will improve or die off. Honda made Chevrolet better, and the same will have to happen for MLS or it will suffer the consequences.
Where I will agree with the MLS supporters is that the direction of America's league fandom is a battle for the country's soccer soul. The game currently has its biggest-ever foothold in our sporting hierarchy. The past few World Cups and the new ease with which we can watch European leagues have created a significant niche of soccer-mad Americans, and it's only going to grow this summer. None of this is going to do a damn thing for MLS unless it gets a whole hell of a lot better. The more America develops a taste for caviar, the more it will realize that the frog eggs on the local menu aren't the same thing.
Photo via Getty