Embracing History

Friday, November 19, 2010 | View Comments
by Jason Davis

History, specifically American soccer history, is top of mind these days.  I'm taking a few days away from the bill-paying job, and while I'm mostly serving as a toddler's jungle gym at erratic intervals that are threatening the viability of my...male paraphernalia, I'm also doing my best to keep up with the goings-on in the soccer world (frankly, I need a 12-step program to break my addiction to my newsreader and Twitter), provide as much content here as vacation-affected motivation will allow, and visit family that deserve a modicum of my attention.

I read a book, a novel as a matter of fact, about an imaginary America where soccer is big and the National Team is capable of winning the World Cup (and in the book, they do - imagine that!).  I wrote a review of said book, a work that relies fairly heavily on American soccer history, even if much of the story is constructed on a foundation of "what ifs." I also read a piece at Slate by Brian Phillips, the best talent writing on soccer not named Jonathan Wilson, in which Brian laments by a simple review of Major League Soccer's brief history the League's frustrating refusal to incorporate American soccer's rich past into its contemporary story.

Brian touches on some of the "whys", including the League's desire to separate itself from the failure of leagues long dead, and points out that the fans are much more embracing of our patchwork soccer history than the people in charge of our modern first division.  Sounders fans used the power of a write-in campaign to ensure a link to the old Seattle team, the Timbers and Whitecaps are riding into league next year on the back of their NASL history*, and t-shirts purveyors like Bumpy Pitch and Pot Hunting are banking on a soccer-savvy community's appreciation of that-which-came-before.  While MLS scurried away from nostalgia, an increasingly educated American soccer fan base was discovering that there was a footy life before single-entity.

Sports nostalgia, as a cultural movement, has been in full-swing for years.  Flip through the NFL games on any given weekend and you're bound to see one of the teams wearing stripped-down unis that hearken back to when men-were-men and two-way players were the norm ("skill position" is code for "designated wussy").  Baseball does it, hockey does it, and each of our "Big Four/Big Three and a Half" sports evoke the past every time a record is broken or two teams that once-played-an-epic-game-before-color-was-invented face off in a contest of any notable importance.  When footage exists, it's trotted out like a saintly relic; when it doesn't, we always have David Halberstam and Dr. Z.  Ask yourself how many times you've seen Bobby Thomson take that fateful swing or Alan Ameche score from one yard out.  Examples abound, best-selling books proliferate.

Unfortunately, unlike American attempts at professional soccer, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and our other professional sports competitions have operated uninterrupted for as long as anyone not named "Harry" or "Norman" can remember.  The chain is unbroken, the relevancy of the games cross-generational.  While the players of today are often oblivious to those that came before them, wizened chroniclers are always on hand to remind us that Gibson dominated, Sayers was magical, and Russell changed the game.  As the clock ticks by, what constitutes "history" (in the nostalgic, not literal, sense) includes a lengthening list of years; knowing the historical narratives of our teams (specifically that which occurred before our own individual fan connections were formed) is a mandatory prerequisite to earning the title of "true fan." As it relates to loyalty and ownership, this is less about nostaglia than it is about pride**.

Perhaps it's this natural inclination of fans to embrace their chosen team's history that makes whole-sport nostalgia possible on a large scale.  Temporal history, like that of the American Soccer League (the 1920's version) or NASL, which could not be directly connected to shiny new clubs born in the 1990's, doesn't fit the paradigm.  Until the recent wave of incoming legacy clubs, fans of MLS teams couldn't go back before 1996 for anything that seemed relevant to them; because the League was understandably set on differentiating itself from the shooting star-NASL (remember, at the time of Major League Soccer's inception, the demise of the NASL was only 12 years in the past), everything that happened before, even Archie Stark and the mostly forgotten ASL, was obscured by the new-beginning whitewash.  The skipping-stone nature of American soccer, glancing off the surface of our sports culture over the course of the last 150 years, made it an unlikely candidate for warm feelings.

It's less that MLS consciously chose to ignore the past as much as it pragmatically decided to leave it aside.  In retrospect, maybe the decision was wrong and the contemporary explosion of nostaglia for American soccer's past stands in evidence of that.  Or perhaps the passage of time, with the pool of potentially interested fans larger than ever before, a decade-and-a-half of MLS history behind us, and the NASL's disappearing act outside the scope of memory of anyone not born prior to Pele's debut with the Cosmos, has served to whet the appetite of American soccer fans for even the modest (in number) glories of the past.  Naturally shifting perspectives among a fan base taking cues from the followers of history-rich European clubs made ubiquitous by TV and the Internet (with the assistance of American soccer "old-timers" who kept the flame burning) turned the original MLS policy as clownish as rainbow-striped sleeves.  The current corporate leadership of MLS, much of which was in the delivery room when the League emerged from Alan Rothenberg's mental womb, is not noted for agility of approach.  It stands to reason that a course correction will naturally be slow in coming. 

That is an attempt to understand, not to justify***.  If you subscribe to the theory that American soccer needed Wharton-esque business-first leadership to finally accomplish sustainability (and I do), then you might be willing to withhold indictment on the issue.  With that said, the grace period has expired.

Eventually, it will dawn on Garber and his cohorts that it's in their best interest change their tact.  Rather than  merely allow clubs to "create their brand vision", which may or may not involve the incorporation of a pre-MLS past, Major League Soccer, as a torch-bearing institution, must endeavor to connect itself to (North) American soccer history on a comprehensive scale.  The language of marketing, a necessary evil that borders on the anathematic for the average emotionally invested fan, must give way to expressions of understanding that American soccer did not begin with the "launch" of the "product" that is MLS (or with World Cup '94 for that matter).  Save the talk of "brand visions" for the boardroom. 

The labels "failed" and "defunct" in regards to American soccer leagues and teams no longer matter after a point; once nostaglia takes over, stigma is quickly shed.  The truth of soccer's struggles in the United States through 1984 won't be forgotten, but the stories it created and the legacies it left behind are ready for inclusion in the modern day narrative, sans detrimental effect (as we've already seen).  The Cosmos are on the verge of a comeback, not simply because a few rich men have too much time on their hands, but because a  community exists that remembers their history fondly with little regard for how long it lasted or why it came to an end.  If MLS is ready to climb into bed with an organization bearing the name of American soccer's most spectacular flame out, surely they're ready to acknowledge the rest of a rich history that carries much less baggage. 

I wonder, while sharing Brian's disappointment in MLS and belief that it should emerge from the vacuum, if a league-sanctioned annexation of pre-1996 American soccer history is actually necessary.  Sure, it would enrich television broadcasts and blunt the edge of arrogance the League possesses, but with much of what is pushing MLS forward culturally emanating from an organically blooming supporters movement, perhaps the fans are the natural, and ultimately preferable, custodians.  Whether by word of mouth or its digital age equivalent (the mechanism which is allowing you to read these very words), an education in American soccer history is already becoming part of the context in which we view Major League Soccer. 

The peerless Mr. Phillips suggests that MLS could add significance to Sunday's final if it embraced things that happened BP (Before Preki).  I agree, because while Preki's general demeanor brings to mind images of club-wielding proto-humans bludgeoning large mammals to death on vast Stone Age plains, his appearance on the American soccer scene was a relatively late occurrence.  Though we don't need MLS to fold itself into the greater story of acronym-ed leagues to understand where its particular chapter belongs (we'll get by on our own, thank you very much), an acknowledgment that the current league is but the latest caretaker of what is rightly described as truly historically American sport would be quite nice.

* I'm not forgetting about the Earthquakes - they just seemed to be a one-off exception to the rule rather than the beginning of a revival.

** I have the vague recollection of reading about a theory that early man's cognitive evolution might have been due in part to the memory needed to recite a list of ancestors, indicating that as a species we may have an instinctual desire to know what came before us in regards to that with which we identify (for prehistoric man, this was his family/genetic forebears, probably as it affected his status within his community); the thought occurs that the sports fan, particularly when it comes to his chosen team to whom he/she creates a personally meaningful bond and which obviously affects his/her status on a societal level (more so when fandom was a matter of simply supporting your local side/civic pride), could be exhibiting the same instinctual behavior. Of course, I could have all of that utterly wrong.

*** I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the possibility that the League's founders didn't want to evoke memories of the NASL because they knew their cost-controlled, small-budget effort wouldn't be able to hold a candle to the Cosmos et al. in terms of star power and quality.  Fourteen years later, a second-division league has appropriated the name. Go figure.
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