by Beau Dure
“What you say about his company is what you say about society,” intoned Geddy Lee (singing the late Neil Peart’s lyrics) on the Rush classic Tom Sawyer.
Elsewhere, what you say about soccer is where you’ve lived in society. And when.
That’s one undercurrent of the interminable discussion about the state of MLS or about promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer. Where you’re from and when you were born may determine a lot of your views on the matter.
MLS is now old enough that a substantial portion of the U.S. population can’t remember a time without it. Call them Millennials, Gen Z, Zoomers or whatever you like. Gen X was the MTV generation, for better or for worse. Gen Z is the MLS generation, for better or for worse.
The younger generations have a wider lens on society than previous generations. They’re more diverse, thanks to immigration patterns that no longer feature many Europeans. They also have access to broadcasts and content that previous generations did not.
Little wonder, then, that so many of them are soccer fans. It’s easier to support a sport when you can see it every once in a while and when you’re surrounded by people who share your interests or, at the very least, aren’t hostile to them.
The hostility is what this generation doesn’t remember. Americans didn’t just ignore soccer. They hated it. In their eyes, this was a sport for socialists who were too cowardly to play American football. When the NASL collapsed, the only soccer we had was generously described as “semipro” or accurately described as “indoor.”
The Millennizoomers missed out on this time in the wilderness. Younger journalists in particular don’t have the perspective of us old folks who dealt with editors scoffing at their desires to write about this sport.
Generational distinctions don’t explain everything, of course. Geographical distinctions were also important. When I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, just before the emergence of the Hammerheads, soccer fans were underground. If you lived in New York or Los Angeles, your experience may be different. By the mid-90s, when I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, I could join a handful of people paying to see a Premier League broadcast at a local bar, but upon moving to the D.C. metro area, I could go to the legendary Summers Restaurant and watch everything from England to Africa.
These experiences shape expectations. Those of us from Generation X who grew up in the South are still amazed that soccer has taken root in this country as firmly as it has. Those from younger generations or more cosmopolitan areas are less surprised, and they’re more likely to be disappointed in the state of the game today.
When it comes to the past, some things are incontrovertible. U.S. soccer was in horrible shape through much of the 20th century. The collapse of the original American Soccer League in 1933 left a gaping void, and that was reflected in national team results. Multiple presidential administrations came and went without U.S. men’s wins, and decades passed between wins over a team outside Concacaf.
The NASL had a few years of popularity, specifically in a few cities, but it didn’t last. The reasons for its collapse are subject to debate, but nonetheless, it disappeared, and further investment in outdoor soccer was nearly nonexistent for nearly a decade.
Given that history, it’s difficult to dispute that soccer needed a kickstart in this country. Fortunately, an uptick of interest in youth soccer yielded a deeper talent pool, and the U.S. took fourth in the 1989 U-20 World Cup, a foreshadowing of half-decent results in international tournaments. The 1994 World Cup on home soil demonstrated a pent-up interest in watching soccer. The U.S. needed a league, and MLS easily won the competition for Division 1 status.
That’s the past. The future is up for more debate, with a specific question: “Is MLS, as currently constructed, best suited to harness the growth of soccer in this country?” MLS has further complicated things with a new joint competition with Mexico and a new “reserves plus some others” league that adds to the incoherence of the country’s lower divisions.
Plenty of paths forward are on offer. Several years ago, veteran soccer executive Peter Wilt suggested a combined MLS/Mexico top division in a promotion/relegation structure. Maybe traditional promotion/relegation is still off the table as far as MLS owners are concerned, but could the Leagues Cup morph into an annual qualification-based competition? Will the hints of promotion/relegation in lower divisions, which was contemplated all the way back in the 1990s but never fully implemented because team owners often needed to relegate themselves out of economic necessity, ever take root? Should MLS, which has incrementally modified its single-entity central control over the years, toss its complex salary restrictions out the window?
In women’s soccer, the questions are different. Dealing with the aftermath of a scandal-ridden year is priority one, but reaching a collective bargaining agreement with players is a close second. Many fans/journalists enthusiastically agree with the notion of paying players much better, but can revenue keep pace? (Soaring ratings will help, of course.)
As with a lot of generational arguments, the biggest question here may not be the end goal but the pace of how to get there. Will the NWSL pay six-figure salaries in 10 years, or should the soccer community press hard to make it happen before then? Should fully professional men’s soccer extend to hundreds of municipalities within 10 years, or is that something that has to evolve more slowly?
Boomers and Gen Xers may be more risk-averse, remembering how fragile U.S. soccer has been in their lifetimes. Younger generations may be less patient.
No generation is completely right or completely wrong. But their experiences are all worthwhile, and any discussion of where to go from here should take that into account.