As Europe returns, MLS is reminded of its place in the pecking order

Like it or not, European football coming back in the middle of the MLS season underlines U.S. club soccer’s relative status.

It’s back, then.

For those of us who follow U.S. club soccer, this might be the least enjoyable time of year. It’s the moment when European football returns from its annual vacation in the States, sporting bad designer jeans and trailing transfer sagas, before loudly launching into new domestic seasons across the continent.

The evangelical period of MLS growth, where the sense of building and protecting a collective project was invoked by league and fans alike, has passed.

Meanwhile, here in the new world, the smoke from the last of the International Champions Cup fireworks clears, and MLS teams squint warily, trying to figure out which teams managed to tiptoe through the choppy summer schedule emerge as playoff favorites (Toronto, NYCFC, Sporting KC, Seattle), and which need a long liedown to recover from heatstroke (Dallas, Chicago Fire).

The fans of those teams will grimace at the sight of some of their fellow soccer fans packing bars at 4 a.m. to watch Manchester United play Swansea, then retiring to bed rather than take a 20-minute train ride to see their local team.

A lot of MLS fans have long since given up moving the needle on that kind of attitude. The evangelical period of MLS growth, where the sense of building and protecting a collective project was invoked by league and fans alike, has passed. These days, the average MLS fan might just want to enjoy the game without hearing another blowhard going on about proper football being back.

That said, in general, the big culture war these days is less between MLS fans defending the standard of play to “Eurosnobs” than between those who still believe in controlled growth (MLS as the sole sanctioned first division) and those who want the free market to promote and relegate U.S. club soccer to utopia.

Let’s tiptoe around that latter hornets’ nest for this week and just say that, right now, we’re in that brief window of the year where the unbridled enthusiasm of European fans has not yet been curdled by the actual experience of losing games. And late August tends to be the moment when, as media and casual support turns enthusiastically eastward, U.S. soccer gets a rude reminder of its place in the food chain.

Like its rulebook, the rhythm of an MLS season is complicated, and if previous seasons are any indicator, this is the time when we think we can judge run-ins, only for at least one team to give a false impression of being a contender and fading as other teams surge in early autumn.

In many ways, the uneven jostling that’s had to squeeze around American El Clasicos, Gold Cups and lucrative cash grabs by MLS teams playing glamorous tourists during July, is no less resolved during the less cluttered August. New signings are settling, the uneven schedule is still resolving, and it’s still just too early for any team to master the alchemy of getting hot at the right time.

In other words, just as there’s little MLS can do to compete with the spectacle and status of the big European leagues when they swagger back, it can’t even draw on a particularly compelling competitive moment to contrast with the meaningless early skirmishes that put Huddersfield top of the Premier League.

USA TODAY Sports-Mike Dinovo

USA TODAY Sports-Mike Dinovo

Of course, no MLS executive is going to want to pick that kind of head-on fight anyway, at any stage of the season. Having ensured the league’s survival, there’s now financial mileage in steady domestic expansion, solid television deals tied to U.S. men’s and women’s national team rights, and, of course, the likes of the recent blockbuster deal with adidas.

The gradual loosening of salary mechanisms is allowing for more conventionally balanced rosters than the top-heavy wedding cakes of the early Designated Player era. And generally the league seems able to thread the needle of integrating the exceptionalist instincts of American sports with the necessarily global priorities of the world’s game.

If that’s occasionally a humbling exercise when the European leagues are kicking off, so be it.

But to go back to those dawn risers watching European games in bars, or even just the type of serious fan who might in principle be perfectly willing to watch both Real Madrid and Real Salt Lake, for different reasons, but who can’t justify the time commitment or disruption to family life to do both, MLS has a timing problem that will not be resolved by switching to the FIFA calendar. It has to live with that.

For sure, tighter scheduling and consolidating around the network TV slots will help, but this will always be a league played in multiple time zones, none of which are less than five hours from any current center of gravity for the global game.

USA TODAY Sports-Jeffrey Swinger

USA TODAY Sports-Jeffrey Swinger

European football coming back in the middle of the MLS season tends to be an unfortunate reminder of U.S. club soccer’s relative status. But even if the MLS season synced with the European ones, geography and daylight would always give all but the most dedicated a choice to make on game days.

Eventually, perhaps, that choice might come down to how important watching live soccer is to you, and beyond that, what exactly you want from both the technical and cultural spectacle (and what, exactly, is setting those expectations). But equally, it can come down to personal history and personal investment in a team, and while the number of MLS fans with those sorts of investments is still relatively small, their dedication to their teams stands comparison with any other fans, anywhere.

So tell any 20-year fan of any MLS original club, in late August, that “proper football is back” and they may take the time to not-so-quietly inform you that it never went away.

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