The Character of Clubs in MLS

Thursday, September 17, 2009 | View Comments
Boca Juniors v Etoile Sahel --- FIFA Club World Cup 2007 Semi Final

Around the world, as soccer/football/futbol took hold in country after country, clubs sprung up in an organic and spontaneous fashion. Over time, these clubs sometimes took on the character of their communities, a particular socio-economic group, or in a few cases, a political party or viewpoint. This phenomena was often the result of two or more clubs calling the same locale (or same stadium) home, enabling fans and supporters to push the image of their club in a certain direction based on their own collective identity while the other local team naturally assumed the opposite character.

Soccer tends to lend itself to this concept, just as it does with supporters groups (unknown in the US outside of soccer) in a way that other traditional American sports don't; while Red Sox and Yankees fans are deeply attached to their clubs, there's no significant organization in their respective fan bases. The concept of American individuality may be at play, keeping fans from feeling the need to coordinate their support beyond anything more than call-and-response cheers. Soccer fans in the US, despite the prevailing culture here, have adopted, co-opted, and organically spawned many of the natural accoutrement that seems to follow the game around the world; yet the concept of a singular club "character" seemingly remains outside the realm of what is possible.

American sports, in which the franchise model dominated nearly from the outset and multiple teams in one city became the exception rather than the rule (owners aren't big fans of competition), has never followed the "character" path. While certain teams could be said to have taken on the character of their city, as the Steelers have with the blue collar image of Pittsburgh, for example, the two concepts are generally unconnected in the United States. Even in those cities that boast two teams in a given sport, the battle lines are more likely to be drawn geographically (i.e., White Sox and Cubs) without regard to the type of the communities involved, rather than along the more subjective lines of "character".

Football - Manchester United v Celtic UEFA Champions League Group Stage Matchday Three Group E

That American mindset, while not an obstacle to things like supporters groups and sustained singing during matches, is a serious impediment to any club taking on specific character, especially by a "natural" process. The size of the country, the youth of the top-tier league, and the slick corporate marketing of the modern age have swept away much of possibilities. As we've seen in recent years, even attempts to force a particular complexion upon a team, as Chivas USA tried to do with the Latin community in Los Angeles, is difficult if not impossible.

There's no reason to believe that MLS clubs need specific characters, of course, though the romantic notion of such a thing probably appeals to certain segments of soccer fans. One of the game's greatest assets in the United States is its unifying nature; for any team to take a specific image, or to become the chosen club of a socio-economic or ethnic group exclusively, would be counter to that nature. Clubs that are linked to the working class, political factions, or any other exclusionary groups took on those personalities long ago; in the modern world of mass communication and rapid exchange of ideas, that kind of insular thinking is less likely to take hold.

If the old world notion of identifying a club with a particular type of fan base can't take hold in the US, should we even be concerned with it? Again, the romantic portion of the soccer audience would probably prefer American clubs take on at least a few characteristics of their environment; if MLS teams are clones of each other across the board, with little to distinguish them from each other besides the uniform, how far does their appeal extend? There's enough homogeneity in the league as it is, with the single-entity structure, salary constraints, and foreign player restrictions creating parity to go along with the plug-and-play nature of the league.

Club character, even if it doesn't go as far as a direct identification with politics or class, can, and probably will, eventually work its way into American soccer. Several teams have begun to create connections with their communities that go beyond marketing, and even more will do so as time goes on. This is a more subjective type of connection, one that leads teams to become embodiments of their city's background and culture, as the aforementioned Steelers have with Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia Union Press Conference

And there lies the determinant: Time. MLS clubs are simply too young to have taken on the color and flavor of their hometowns, and only the span of years will decide if they ever do. Will the Red Bulls evolve into the flashy, attractive playing team the New York surely craves? Will the Fire grow into a club that represents the blue collar ethos of Chicago? What type of club will Philadelphia be, and will it fit the gritty nature of that city?

Part of the fun of watching soccer come of age in the United States is in this very area. As more fans and cities come on board, the potential for clubs to weave themselves into the fabric of their communities gets bigger by the year; with so many sports that have lost touch with their fans in the American marketplace due to over-coporatization and inordinate ticket prices, soccer is perfectly positioned to fill a void in the sports fan's soul.
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