Analysis

Upheaval a reminder that grassroots soccer grows on shifting sands in the U.S.

Courtesy of SF Deltas/NASL

For all the bullish talk of American soccer's growth, recent events have a depressingly familiar feel to them.

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​The week of Nov. 12 will go down as a bad one for U.S. soccer, where it seems as if every turn is a reminder of how precarious the domestic game can still be in late 2017.

Never mind the cautious optimism that greeted the next generation of U.S. men’s national team players acquitting themselves well in Portugal this week — those green shoots of recovery were set among some pretty trampled-looking grassroots.

The story of the San Francisco Deltas had looked like only having one ending for months now, and while the finale had a bittersweet kicker in the form of an NASL championship to conclude the team’s inaugural season, that ending duly came only hours after the triumph over the New York Cosmos.

The Deltas can at least say they were champions for every year of their existence. But as fairy tales go, this one took a distinctly depressing turn.

It was a very modern U.S. soccer story, right down to the self-conscious tech-startup culture of the organization that tried to make virtue of NASL’s precarious necessity. The organization talked a good game, had a very good coach who built from a shaky start to create a dangerous side right when it mattered, and tried to frame some basic organizational naivety as a kind of experiment in open-source nimbleness.

But the project bled money rather than making it. Over 10 home games, the club pulled in just 20,000 fans — around a quarter of Kezar Stadium’s capacity. At one point, CEO Brian Andrés Helmick wrote a Medium article on the club begging Delta fans to each come back with a friend, without discernible impact on turnout.

By the time the fans who showed up for the NASL final invaded the field to celebrate their win, they were essentially attending a raucous wake.

That’s not to denigrate what the Deltas have done, whether on the field in winning a championship, or in the energy staff, players and owners have expended off the field in trying to build a viable team in short order. The broader point is, most of us are not surprised. Teams coming and going is so commonplace as to feel less like trauma than just part of the texture of the game for most of us.

And that was just one team reaching an end this week. Two-time NWSL champion FC Kansas City at least still exists, after a fashion — though after much speculation about the team’s future, it’s moving to Salt Lake City to become part of the Real Salt Lake organization, as FourFourTwo reported.

Meanwhile, the Rochester Rhinos, the last non-MLS team to win a U.S. Open Cup, and one-time likely MLS team in their own right, are now a failing USL team that just announced they need $1.3 million in the next fortnight just to stay alive.

And of course there’s Columbus Crew SC, whose ownership group wasted no time in leaving an abortive meeting with their current home city’s council this week and suggesting they’re still open for negotiation — despite every mismanaged signal they’ve issued suggesting that everything between now and packing for Austin is just an exercise in going through the motions.

All this substantial yet insubstantial change is that all of these developments are soundtracked by the constant chatter of U.S. soccer Twitter. It’s a very particular social bubble that often mistakes its own bursts of heat for revolution, but whose current obsessions around the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election will likely have less bearing on the outcome than similar exchanges did on the actual U.S. presidential election.

Because when it comes to Twitter as a reliable chart of U.S. Soccer’s terrain of power, the map is definitely not the territory.

If it were, the bright charm offensive of a Kyle Martino, or the highly-engaged provocations of an Eric Wynalda would have them as the undoubted frontrunners. They may well be, but social media is not the bellwether of that.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The voting blocs that will determine the next president are not crafting 280-character comebacks, any more than Anthony Precourt is taking a break from studying “business metrics” to token pander to the #SavetheCrew crowd.

An aggregate of U.S. soccer Twitter might reveal an engaged appetite for transparency within the federation, or for owners to be accountable to their core constituents, but Twitter is not in itself an expression of power. It gives a sense of what those who are engaged are engaged with, but not a true sense of just how viable it is to effect and sustain meaningful change.

That’s important, because we’re at what might or might not be an inflection point in the story of soccer in the U.S.

The U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup failure, and the insistence by U.S. Soccer and MLS that such a setback was survivable, suggested that the project of professional domestic soccer had reached a threshold of viability where fans could and should demand more accountability rather than defaulting to uncritical evangelism.

That should still happen, and our social media should reflect the struggle of grassroots soccer fans to be heard.

It’s just that this week was a reminder that many of those roots are still growing on shifting sands.

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