Make 2017 the year we start owning America's soccer culture
It’s 2017, and yet one important element of our American soccer culture still looks like it did in 1977. Yeah, we’re still driving an old Buick, no seat belt, dangling a cig out the window.
It’s our endless fascination -- both instinctive and reflexive -- with re-creating the game we see “over there.” So pay attention here, because this is important, even if you didn’t realize this point needed making:
Whatever American soccer is in this country, make 2017 the year you stop looking for it to be something else. We need to own our game – whatever that looks like.
Obviously, you can want soccer at all levels here to be better, to grow and to improve. But that’s not what we do here; that’s not the part of the American soccer condition that needs a talking to. We need to slam the brakes on all this validation through emulation, this need to reconstruct what others in lands beyond have already created.
Instead, let the game be what it wants to be. Let 2017 be the year everyone just gets OK with the U.S. game finding its own way, unencumbered by the boundless belief that our game won’t be complete until it’s “flavoured” as it is on Elland Road or Stamford Bridge or the mighty, mighty Santiago Bernabeu.
We’ve copied things for so long here – stadium design, uniform design, nicknames, vernacular and so on – we barely realize we do it anymore. Some of it is OK, but it limits our own ability to grow. So, you’re interested in England, Italy, Mexico or wherever? Great! Me, too. But we don’t have to emulate their cultures and practices, and it’s high time we get that through our 32-paneled noggins once and for all. (Believe it or not, the game isn’t perfect anywhere else; they all have their own particular can of worms to deal with.)
Some of this is institutional. Take the hiring practices of networks when it comes to broadcast talent. It’s gotten better, but there remains too much institutional bias toward British voices. I heard an NPR reporter say just this week that “we love our British voices in soccer.” But do we really? Or is it just the network execs who “fancy” those voices? For them, those stately accents have always represented the safer choice, never mind that there are more and more qualified Yanks.
We need this moment. You probably don’t even realize how often we instinctively resist efforts to create something uniquely our own in soccer.
Nothing wrong with ...
Consider that we recently had a highly dramatic MLS Cup final – one where a few scolds just couldn’t help criticize the setting due to the elements. “A cup final in December! In Toronto!” But it’s a great example of North American soccer finding its own way. So what if it’s cold? Let’s have our MLS finals in December and make it part of the MLS landscape, part of the tradition and framework. And if it’s cold, well OK!
The part about it being in Toronto? Well, there a lot of reasons to love the home-field finals – mostly that it’s another way of rewarding season-long performance. It may not be the world’s way of deciding championships, but who cares? It’s our way now. Let’s just be OK with it.
Same with next week’s MLS draft, among the most unique features of domestic soccer when held up against the global game. No, it’s not as important as before; the burgeoning academies have pushed it closer to the margins. And yet it remains a useful tool for roster quality maximization. This increasingly useful blend of academy development plus draft supplementation? That looks a lot like “U.S. professional soccer” today. So let’s hug it close and enjoy our way!
Or consider something about to happen that is quintessentially “American soccer”: The U.S. men’s national team’s annual January camp. Its lack of European players have driven some to refer to it as “camp cupcake,” but it serves a unique purpose. January camp is a necessary product of (and sensible reaction to) the MLS calendar and the national team’s needs.
We’re coming out of this period where Jurgen Klinsmann tried to remake the U.S. men’s national team in Germany’s image. It didn’t work. Now it’s Bruce Arena’s turn and perhaps people will ask again, “What if we just develop our own style and quit chasing the global, tactical flavor of the moment?”
We’ve been doing professional soccer here for almost 50 years. (The first real stab at a major, national pro league started in 1968.) You know what has been part of the U.S. pro soccer scene every step along the way? Playoffs.
MLS is the highest tier of professional soccer here. Playoffs are part of the MLS blueprint. Just get yourself OK with that. Complain to the heavens about the playoff format or number of entrants or whatever – that’s fine. But stop blowing your horn about single table this and promotion-relegation that.
We’re told from certain corners that single table and pro/rel are the only ways to go, that “playoffs” are some abomination. But playoffs are how we do our sports. It seems to work for the NFL, and that thing seems to be working out.
Speaking of MLS, we’re probably about to get another tired round “U.S. players doing it wrong!” if Brad Guzan re-joins MLS. We’ll be told that he has lost his soul or something silly like that.
But here’s the deal: This is what pro soccer will look like now. Through creative salary cap work-arounds, MLS is getting increasingly competitive with the “bigs” of Europe in salary. So more national teamers will happily earn a living here. Not all of them, but plenty of them. You may not like it, and it may not suit your romantic notion of the ideal national-team setup – but so what?
And no, this won’t crush the national team. If having national-team players in the Premier League was really that helpful in building a country’s program, England wouldn’t be so consistently average in World Cups.
Enough with “United” and “FC”
Here’s something else: enough already with “United.” And the whole “FC” thing too. That may be the best example of our worn-out quest for validation through emulation. Those words have cultural meaning in other lands. Here? It’s just an everyday, in-your-face reminder that we haven’t gotten comfortable owning our game yet.
“FC” for heaven’s sake! That means “football club” of course. At the highest level, we aren’t even comfortable calling it “soccer.”
Personally, I have watched, played, studied, written about and absolutely loved soccer all my life – and I’ve never called it anything else. It’s soccer. That’s what we call it here. Even as a kid, when most of instruction was either directly from or significantly informed by Brits, some of whom lectured us about calling it by its “proper” name of football, I never thought about calling my sport anything else.
It wasn’t some conscious protest – I was just OK with owning my version of this great game.
Plenty of people feel the same way and always did. But not everyone. The zeitgeist of our game has never quite wrestle itself away from this foreign dependence, a little like our dependence on foreign oil, which has improved but clings stubbornly to the landscape.
It’s our game now. We have just as much right to it as anyone.
Let’s get OK with American soccer – whatever form that takes. Make this the year it really happens.
Steve Davis’ column, America’s Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.