North American Soccer Needs Unifying Blueprint Not Division

Bickering media, fading league-wide unity and overly competitive organizations – the USSF and CSA need a galvinizing blueprint for North American soccer’s future and expansion
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, December 20, 2013

Fox Soccer Channel , FSC -- Mike Firpo/Soccer Newsday

The kids need to stop bickering in the backseat.

After a century, North American soccer still can’t stop getting in its own way.

If it’s not the NASL vs USL, MLS vs NASL, MLS vs Supporters Groups, NPSL vs PDL, W-League vs WPSL, CSA vs CSL, US Youth Soccer vs AYSO, NSCAA vs USSF Coaching, High School Soccer vs Development Academies, Long Term Player Development vs Youth Competition, Old USWNT vs New USWNT, GolTV vs beIN Sport, Promotion/Relegation Diehards vs Garber, Jogo Bonito vs Anglophilia or College Soccer vs Logic -- it’s now the sports blog collective SB Nation versus Grant Wahl, arguably the most popular soccer writer in the United States.

Contention in the Soccer Media

Wednesday night became a battle of words on Twitter, currently the most popular forum for North American soccer fan/media communication, between Sport’s Illustrated’s Grant Wahl and Keith Hickey of Goal.com. That cyber bust-up morphed into a debate about amateur bloggers versus professional soccer writers and then specifically SB Nation writers/culture and Grant.

It was personal from the beginning and didn’t need to be.

It was divisive and didn’t need to be.

It went on too long and could’ve ended earlier.

The next morning, a reflective Wahl tweeted an apology to SBN writers for his previous remarks. Not sure if SBN writers and fans apologized or if Hickey and Wahl made amends, but the argument appears over.

Despite the conclusion of that cyber-bust-up, the casualty seems to be the soccer landscape in North America. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but lines are further entrenched in differing ways. Blogger vs Pro Writer, SBN vs Wahl supporters, etc.

But it’s unnecessary and unfortunate it happened at all.

Soccer is surely not special on Twitter for its internet “battles.” Some people like to incite others online, sometimes casual debates become bitter, but more often people just don’t know when to stop, ignore or, in the end, just click the “block” button and be done with it.

On a personal level, I noticed almost as soon as Soccer Newsday went live a few people had it out for us. Sure we made errors – like direct URLs to external articles for aggregating from the start, etc. – but we fixed those and hopefully didn’t offend many. But that doesn’t mean attacks stop from certain areas or specific people – for some, that is sport.

Some people will just never get along due to a myriad of factors, including ego, rivalry, title and competition for the few dollars that can be obtained in sports. But usually it is ego. Few want to be wrong, insulted or embarrassed in public – especially thru the Twitter culture of “followers” and peers.

It also must be said, SBN is a huge collection of writers from many sports, soccer being just one. Their many writers aren’t all on the same page, nor should they be. At Soccer Newsday we ask (probably too often) that we all just remain civil to our soccer media colleagues, be they pro or amateur, and to our readers and fans out there. But we have had issues too trying to keep all of that passion contained. After all, pro and amateur writers, podcasters and media in general love to chat this sport, and they have strong well-articulated opinions. So I can understand those issues.

I’ve also had some pretty rude comments hurled at me and our SN writers, and I have fallen into the trap of being too defensive about it, instead of just ignoring it. It happens to all of us. Well, except to Alexi Lalas, because he often plays ill-served balls off his chest and deadens them to the ground – which is the wisest play going to survive modern hater culture and the often abusive online world.

If the USA still had its physical National Soccer Hall of Fame, I’d say we all should check our egos at the door. We don’t sadly, so let’s just leave it away from the keyboards and smartphones. Nobody knows what is going on in someone’s life. If their mother, child or sibling is sick, their marriage is rocky, or if they are struggling financially or emotionally.

Be a human and be humane to each other – especially given the precarious and embryonic nature of North American soccer sub-culture.

Don’t worry about your ego; it generally gets you into more trouble than it’s worth.

Listen, I know I am not a good writer. I likely wasn’t in the top 100 of NAm soccer podcasters, though I enjoyed doing it. I’m not rich, I wasn’t the athlete my heart wanted me to be, I’m not the coach I think I am, I make errors in leadership, judgment and only my wife and mother think I am still handsome. But, my ego tells me I’m a funny bastard and after nearly tens of thousands of hours of focus, I have a big brain of soccer knowledge and logic to match my love for this game and its growth. The problem is every time it reminds me of that, I feel good for a moment, but then I have to ensure I don’t use that as a weapon or have delusions of grandeur – because somewhere there is always someone better – unless your last name is Messi. And as with Pele and Maradona before him, it’s likely even his successor has been born. Ego works like that; you have to keep it in check and refocus on the bigger picture, not yourself.

In the end, if you can’t agree, just ignore that person for the day. If all else fails and you still can’t get on with them or are on the target of too many attacks from a keyboard warrior – just block them and move on in life. When they move out of their parent's house and/or take some medication or learn meditiation - they'll get over that owe-so-painful block.

Because who really who cares who is right in online or offline debates? Just get over it. MLS is still a teenager, US Soccer & the CSA aren’t growing fast enough for most, our huge sport rivals would in many cases hope for our failure or perpetual non-arrival and the Sun will eventually burn out of fuel, albeit that has a few billions years and Canada better crack the FIFA Top 100 in a few thousand.

Club Partisanship Overtakes Pan-League Fraternity

One also gets the sense that 2013 was the year that supporter groups and hardcore fan partisanship finally tipped the balance on early MLS fan camaraderie. It’s a sign of maturity and the natural byproduct of reaching a critical mass of fans and markets, where the amount of hardcore fans simply no longer can coexist as harmoniously as they used to when MLS was in its infancy.

You hear it now in the tone of the discussion between SGs. You read it in the language of fans and their online ambassador bloggers. You see it in the tifo, you sense it in the stands. The mass brotherhood that once existed and helped MLS along thru the lean years when many of the most ardent and loudest fans knew each from Big Soccer and the ilk. Some still do, and Twitter and social media have of course put faces and instant contact of some of the new bonds together. But the rancor is now real, the depth of division intensified, the club passion and loyalties are now so strong that logic is sometimes thrown out the window and common purpose a distanty memory.

I’m ambiguous about this phase because North America has had a lot more WE than I in the dialect of its fan language. “WE” still exists in patches, but that now overwhelmingly means club first, then maybe the nation and league.

This last MLS Cup in Kansas I felt first-hand some of that pan-league love melt away. Funny story, I was with my small travel companion group of neutrals and RSL fans trying to find souvenir MLS Cup 2013 scarves. We go into one shop – nothing but SKC paraphernalia, not sure if anything was MLS Cup branded. So we scurry forward into the bitterly colds depths of the blue stadium and find yet another small store. We hop into the heat and uncomfortably congested confines only to see more dizzying varieties of azure wares – no MLS Cup. We signal to each other that this is not happening and then another neutral fan says out loud so others could hear: “MLS Cup scarves are literally in the mail! They are stuck somewhere in New Jersey.” Odd to have a scarfless championship – but he seemed to be in-the-know and that solidified the failed efforts. We headed to the door and to our final frozen destination – the seats. On our way out it got tighter than a midtown Manhattan rush-hour subway in there. No personal space and baby-step movements. Normal chaos though. But then, I feel a weird feeling in my left ribs, not natural and far less comfortable. I figure it was typical stuff, or someone let Aurelien Collin out of his cage prior to kickoff, either one. But it persisted and intensified and there were now obvious jabs. Now that is not normal. I look only to see a Sporting KC fan quickly turn his head towards his group. I put my hand on his shoulder and said a few terse words more frigid than the temperature and he seemed embarrassed enough to blush, but not confident enough to apologize. As we exit, a buddy looks at me and says he didn’t understand what that was and that he was doing that to him too.

Think of the logic there, or absence of it, to a visiting fan in your home stadium. Yes, you love your team, you have pride for your home and you want victory today – but you are trying to childishly and passively hurt someone? Silly. And it’s not the sort of action I remember from past MLS Cups. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of home SKC fans were hospitable and competitively gracious and friendly with visiting supporters from Utah and nationwide.

But it’s important that fan partisanship doesn’t go too far where we emulate the bad elements of European and Latin American fandom. No matter how menacing your logo, how offensive your chants – Supporter Groups (as bloggers) are not gangs. Real soccer fans are not the overseas un-shirted thugs you see fighting in the stands en-masse who use club shields figuratively as a screen to enact violence. This new wave of club-based vitriol and stubbornness is unacceptable in the North American sports landscape and not going to raise this game to the level it can get to.

A past strength of our soccer culture was in our league-wide unity. And of course it’s great for supporters to love their club, but some pan-league and pan-NAm bonds should not ever be severed for club pride.

It is possible to love your club passionately and love your league and respect other clubs and their supporters at the same time. Japan does it, and North America had been doing it. I hope we stay that healthier course.

The Cause: Missing Blueprints

The biggest problem is that the North American soccer landscape is not galvanized. For fandom, differention is the norm. With the media, it is normal in most free societies. The competition amongst them can often be good, although maybe not as much for developing soccer nations like the USA and Canada.

But in regards to organization and infrastructure, the lack of common purpose and unity can be a huge issue.

North American soccer has been planned worse than a soccer stadium in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. We still have disjointed soccer pyramids where we should have one or two streamlined pipelines for success. The redundancy in youth organizations is still prevalent (USYS, AYSO, etc.), creating massive issues that often go overlooked in regards to development. Competing coaching licensing via either US Soccer or the NSCAA – where one progressive and evolving model for success would unify and strengthen the diversity of coaches and philosophies.

And then there are the leagues.

League Turf Wars

The major North American soccer leagues are working together now, but not in the best way for the greater good.

MLS now has a reserve player/club deal with the USL and specifically its third division USL PRO. That of course creates more issues indirectly between the top two divisions of MLS and NASL, as NASL was created out of the desire to be anything but the USL league-centric model. The NASL has more recently allied with division four NPSL and they look set to connect further with them. This would be great competitively, but in soccer, the best pyramids push the most talented players and clubs to the top.

Oklahoma City is close to launching two minor league soccer teams - in two seperate leagues. Nearby Tulsa seems ripe for the same silly situation.

Poor Oklahoma is about to be the un-witting battlefield of North American soccer leagues and their un-coordinated expansion.

This is what that looks like on the ground level when you worry more about competing with your rival than you do sense and when you don’t plan from the top or bottom comprehensively.

 “Uhhh ... I'm confused.

We have the Tulsa Athletics playing at the old Drillers' stadium.

We have the Tulsa Revolution playing indoor.

We now have this USLPro team playing at Oneok.

AND some other group is trying to get a NASL team here, too?

This seems like overkill. Why don't we pick one league for one team. Tulsa does have a lot of soccer fans, and can support one team, but one team ONLY. Choose the best league and go from there with ONE team.

Focus people. FOCUS!” – James Polk

The reader above has at least a general care and understanding of local Tulsa soccer – he may even be a hardcore fan. But think of the general or new fans there. You know, the ones who aren’t reading this article and who probably are 80% of the NAm fan population.

Think how confusing it would be in Oklahoma now – where you are hearing that OKC is getting 2 minor league teams, Tulsa is getting one for sure too and maybe two … and what about MLS one day?

You know what happens when you confuse or divide your new audience?

They leave for the familiar or the easy.

Now imagine one voice for soccer in OKC, Tulsa, Sacramento, Tampa (formerly), Atlanta/Minnesota/San Antonio (with MLS expansion and existing minor league clubs) and possibly in the vital New York City market with the homeless Cosmos and NYCFC trying to conquer the boroughs faster than China does the Moon.

Brian Quarstad of the former IMS Soccer News and Steve Sandor of the11.ca did wonderful, selfless and underpaid work highlighting the battles of North America’s grassroots game. Sadly, they don’t have many taking their batons. These petty inter-league battles for infrastructure, place on the trough and for the success of new or resurrected markets, is underreported and often misunderstood. It is also, if left un-regulated by the two federations (USSF & CSA), going to hinder the potential of some fanbases in a new North America.

With that in mind, I often wonder what USL PRO member Orlando City SC would have done if the NASL decided Orlando would be a city to contend for too. Thankfully that did not happen to the purple bit of Central Florida, and in the end one successful collaborative group of local and foreign investors reached their lofty goal of MLS and Division 1 soccer. Down the road, the USL PRO’s Tampa entity is no more and the NASL’s throwback Tampa Rowdies meanwhile have solid fan culture and new St. Pete ownership – but are firmly planted in D2 for the foreseeable future.

As I mentioned in the unruly pyramids article a bit ago, North American leagues can’t figure out how to expand into the same market (read: city) at the same time fast enough. IE: to fail. They all want to do well. They all have ambitious millionaire and billionaire owners who know money, but not all of which know sports, see Cardiff City for an example of that, especially the beauty and specialness of soccer supporter culture.

In a nutshell, someone has to be the referee here. That would be the US Soccer Federation and the Canadian Soccer Association. To put it bluntly, they fail the growth of the game every season that begins without a blueprint for soccer expansion and cohesion in what is arguably more akin to a continental confederation like UEFA who runs European soccer as opposed to two national federations.

Bread on the Table

Naturally no one wants to enrich their competitors or have them take food off their table. But forget the food for a second and be thankful that North American soccer has some to go around at all. It wasn’t long ago our domestic soccer scenes were going thru a football famine with the few talented players having to pursue professions in unglamorous lower leagues in Europe.

Our soccer media and our supporters, and more importantly our soccer leagues and governing bodies, need to work together. All the old and new divisions, self-centered egos, jealousy and petty squabbles over scraps need to be stopped.

A generational blueprint for proper and non-redundant North American soccer market expansion and galvanization of the various youth/coaching/league bodies needs to be thought thru by a think-tank of the best and brightest in all the leagues, clubs, supporter groups, media, soccer-friendly corporations and various levels of governing bodies. It cannot be a dictate, but it must be a coordinated and well-designed way forward that can be tweaked as times merit.

Understandably we pat ourselves on the back for much of the recent success in North American soccer, we have of course come far in the last decade. But there is so far still to go and I firmly believe with improvements North American soccer can be the envy of all of soccer and sports, in time. MLS can become profitable, a continental-wide ratings-bonanza, remain competitive and become ‘the’ elite league on and off the field. The USA may lift the World Cup trophy and Canada can qualify and perform well consistently in world tournaments. Our youth development organization can become the envy of the soccer world and our coaches can be exported and respected for their tactical acumen. Seattle and Portland should not remain anomalies of fan culture, but become the North American norm. Our pyramid can become as high as it is wide and contain profitable beautiful playing soccer clubs that mean something to communities from San Diego to Nova Scotia.

But we have a bit to fix, more to learn, much more hard work to be done and we must be humble and cooperative to our ecosphere to get there. We have a long road to go together to reach soccer’s potential. If we keep wasting time fighting each other though, no one reading this will live long enough to see that day.

WE are stronger together.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, NYCFC & RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli & FC Barcelona
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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