Yeah, so, about the Belgium game. Like many of you, I arrived home to find a DVR full of NASCAR. And while the ideal move would have been to skip over to ESPN3 and see the match...what I did was, I read some reports of the game. A lot of reports. A lot of opinions. Many posted by you yourselves. And, to be perfectly honest, you guys didn't make the game sound terribly appetizing. Hey, that's it, I'll blame you. If you had made the game sound entertaining, I'd have watched. This is all your fault.
There's some talk about when Klinsmann's honeymoon should be over. There's an easy enough answer - World Cup qualifying. We'll be up against crummy teams we should murderize.
If you can't wait that long, then there's always January. Klinsmann will have weeks in Carson with a picked squad. Even if some of the better players will be busy in Europe, the MLS players picked so far have been by and large adequate. I expect very, very solid performances in next year's January and February friendlies. Until then, I'm not going to worry that in consecutive games, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, our most important players, seemed to have taken deep satisfying gulps from the dark blue waters of the River Suck. (Well, maybe Dempsey was great against Belgium, and has gotten some bad press. It's just so much easier to follow the conventional wisdom than it is to make the extra effort to make an informed decision. You understand, don't you? Good.) (Landon scored tonight for the Galaxy anyway, and since US games won't count at all for months and months, I'm so much more concerned about club than country right now, it's not even funny.)
So let's talk about something I care about.
DJ Walker is on the Dallas branch office of the Worldwide Leader, and he had this to say about, well, all of us:
Our soccer culture has developed differently. In the United States, to be a soccer fan is to be a lonely island in a sea of indifference. We grew up desperately searching for soccer (if I may mix my metaphors a bit) like a thirsty man seeking water. We are not picky about which oasis we find.
So, when we find other people who share our obsession, our first impulse is to befriend them, not to beat them with a blunt object. When I see the Cauldron, or any other MLS supporters group, I don’t see enemies, I see friends who root for a different team. I’ve had similar experiences with supporters groups from Colorado, New England, Chicago, San Jose, heck even Houston. The few times the Inferno has had a bit of trouble in Houston, it hasn’t been with the Supporters, but with small groups of young punks who think wearing the same color shirt makes them tough guys. Half the time, when you meet the supporters of other teams, either on the road or at Pizza Hut Park, you already know them from BigSoccer or Sam’s Army. It’s like a big extended family of soccer nerds, no matter where you go in the League. For those of us of a certain age (though we’d never say it out loud) in some corner of our minds we’re fans of MLS as much as of our own teams. That’s because we remember the old days, when there was no soccer. If you’re old enough, you’ve lived through the implosion of the NASL and 40 years of failing to qualify for the World Cup. Having a successful, stable league and a strong National Team, well, it’s hard to even describe how nice it is. That’s why we don’t have time to hate other Supporters; we’re too busy looking around wondering if this is all actually for real.
This is a part of the American soccer fan experience that's completely alien to other American sports fans, and to soccer fans around the world.
It's great. It's uplifting. And it's temporary. As soccer gets more popular, a lot of the camaraderie DJ describes becomes impossible or irrelevant.
Let's say the MLS becomes so popular, people actually stop referring to it as "the MLS." What will happen? There's a handy way to check - take a look at the more popular American sports, and see how those fans behave.
Hm...well, they get along fine, apart from the shootings and stabbings and riots. Is now a good time to point out that if any of this year's more notorious incidents happened in a soccer game, they'd have banned the sport?
NFL fans and MLB fans and NHL fans are a pretty homogeneous lot, especially compared to soccer - but camaraderie across team loyalty bounds is non-existent. And why would there be any? Fans of popular teams playing popular sports don't need to go out of their way for validation. Sacramento Kings fans don't get excited about meeting Charlotte Bobcats fans, for example. That's where we're headed - if we're not already there. Hey, Portland fans - wanna hang out with some Sounders fans? No?
You can still meet fellow fans and turn weird strangers into weird friends, or at least weird acquaintances you think twice about introducing to your other friends - but odds are, those people will support the same team as you. We've just about seen the last of fellow American soccer fans hailing each other as fellow crusaders and evangelists - which shows that the crusade is nearly won. No longer are American soccer fans a despised gaggle of misfits and nerds. But you can't have comrades-in-arms without a war.
Well, so what, you ask. Everywhere else in the world, specific team loyalties drive the fan experience. Even better, they don't have to worry about their team shutting down or fleeing for more promising towns. Their fathers' team will be their children's team. Isn't that what we want? And if it isn't what you as a fan want, it's certainly what players and owners and sponsors want, so get with the program.
So maybe the good old days weren't so good for the guys practicing in parking lots. So maybe we're just the sports version of fans who make a big deal of liking a group before they "sold out."
Maybe. But there really was a sweet spot to be a fan - there weren't so damn few of us that we looked like putzes even trying to start a chant, but there weren't so many that your individuality wasn't completely subsumed. And if carrying about individualism while standing in a crowd of thousands of people dressed in the same color sounds brain-damaged - well, as DJ pointed out, was a time when even being a soccer fan was a conscious act of rebellion against the mainstream sports hive mind.
Those times are all but gone. Now, we have more and better players, more and better stadiums, more and better teams, more and better games. Probably more and better fans, too, although I'd sooner swim in bile than admit it. Today's times are great, too - someday we'll look back on all this with sugary nostalgia, too. But the wacky, silly MLS of the 90's was fun, too.
...well, not for MetroStars fans, of course, but there's no helping some people.
...RIP Bobby Rhine