Many cannot understand why the ghost of the North American Soccer League haunts the halls of the MLS front office. The obvious answer is the correct one - a big-time American soccer league that seemed to have gotten over the hump disappeared in a puff of Studio 54 cocaine. The original American Soccer League, one of the world's top leagues at the time, vanished so completely that it took Colin Jose to dig up any trace of it forty years later. Not enough survived to even serve as a cautionary tale. That's frightening, man. That's Ozymandias in Cahokia eating a McDLT watching "Supertrain" on Betamax. And that's American soccer history.
Pointing out that fear of the NASL is literally a phobia in the classic sense is entirely correct. I can think of at least twenty ways MLS is better right now than the NASL was...you know, let's see if I can fulfill that empty boast the way Cyrano did. Stadiums - not just better stadiums, but stadiums full stop. More solid ownership. Less franchise movement. Longer-lasting franchises (however, in fairness, our Whitecaps are the same as the NASL Whitecaps, at least according to our Whitecaps).
Participation in the Open Cup. Participation in CONCACAF - however ambivalent I am about the importance of continental success, it's better to participate than not. Better fan culture. Better attendance. Better domestic players. Better integration with the national team. Better player production for the World Cup. Better fields - compared to Veterans Stadium back in Fury days, even TFC substitute hangout Rogers Centre is Wembley. Fewer rules gimmicks, and this was always true even when MLS had a shootout. Immeasurably better television coverage, although it's not the NASL's fault that it was a 70's league and it didn't have the same cable opportunities. And all the ancillary things the Internet has done for US soccer culture, although again, hardly the NASL's fault.
How many is that - oh. Fifteen. Minus the totally unfair ones - thirteen. The NASL had better uniforms (despite the Caribous), better team names (despite the "Caribous"), bigger stars, and I assume better player salaries. I think the overall fan experience is incomparably in favor of our era, though.
But you would think there would be another clear advantage - institutional permanence. All nineteen fanbases have a reasonable expectation not only that their teams will finish the season, but field teams next year, and the year after that. NASL fans believed that, too, and they were wrong.
We could be wrong about that, too. MLS fans in Florida were wrong if they believed that in 2000, and, per Beau Dure's "Long Range Goals," it was only Phil Anschutz's whim that kept us all from being wrong. But if MLS is still on the precipice today - my God, what a fantastic con they've been running!
And some of it is, as Sophocles said so movingly in the climactic scene of "Oedipus at Colonnus," five pounds of canary crap in a half-liter baggie. Conflating average attendance at MLS matches with average attendance at NBA games, or trumpeting soccer's ascendance into a "fourth major sport" while the NHL still lives (and refusing to include golf, racing or college athletics as "major sports) - this is runaway jive turkeyism. It sounds wrong to the average fan, because it is wrong. This kind of technicality-juggling would be beneath supporters of truly popular pastimes, and no fan has yet been won over by damn lies and statistics. At least come out with "Rubber Soul" before you say you're more popular than Jesus.
Let's assume, though, that 2012 isn't the new 1979. Let's assume, instead of hope, that substantially all of the league's teams are self-sustaining. It's instructive that Taylor Twellman, during the KC-LA mauling over the weekend, narrowed down the league's truly underperforming franchises to two - New England and Chivas USA. Even more instructive was his prescription - new stadiums for the both of them. Adrian Healey made no argument, nor seemingly has anyone else.
Think about that for a moment - the solution to disappointing NASL franchise was to move, fold, or move then fold. The solution to a disappointing MLS franchise? Build it a stadium of its own. That's doubling down - well, more like twentying down. Picture the owners of, say, the California Surf saying "We're going to build our own stadium." But Chivas USA has talked about it for years now, and the only one who has called them raving madmen is, well, me. (And even I admit the possibility that a stadium built in the right place would do wonders, although I consider the right place to be San Bernardino.)
Actually, I haven't gotten around to my New England idea, have I? Assuming everywhere remotely close to Boston fails - move them to Providence, and call them the (Providence/Rhode Island/New England) Marksmen. Fall River is close enough to Providence to make the tribute justifiable.
Or hell, have teams in Boston and Providence. New England enjoys its rivalries, so let's split the region's loyalties. While I'm redoing the league with non-existent money from non-existent owners - not Washington or Baltimore, Washington AND Baltimore. And once we have enough teams in the East, the league can cut travel costs while returning Kansas City and Houston to their natural rivals in the West.
Yes, I'm saying bring back the Baltimore Bays before bringing back the Cosmos, why do you ask? Is that somehow unrealistic?
Well, such exuberance about American soccer planning has been unheard of since the Carter Administration (an era known for its devil-may-care carnival atmosphere). When Real Salt Lake, Seattle and Toronto can't close the deal in the CONCACAF tournament, the league structure is blamed - instead of a pace of expansion that almost guarantees dilution of talent to some degree. If the Mexican league added teams to its top division at the pace MLS has, then they'd have similar troubles in international competition, too. (Well, maybe not in CONCACAF so much as Libertadores.)
The North (of the Rio Grande) American style of protecting and nurturing weaker teams will also hinder MLS as it tries to conquer CONCACAF and the World Club Cup. As long as the league is structured in a way to give every team a reasonable shot at success, it will take a truly exceptional MLS team to compete abroad. We are cheering for a crab bucket that pulls down those which might escape. This isn't just about promotion and relegation - MLS is an egalitarian system beyond even the National Football League. No MLS team can permit its team to despair like Chicago Cubs fans. So we have sacrificed the greater glory of Real Salt Lake and Toronto, in order to protect a system that prevents Juan Carlos Osorio, Bruce Arena or Peter Nowak from destroying fan bases through chuckleheaded incompetence. It's very, very hard to damage an MLS team so badly that it cannot recover respectability within a season or two.
So because we don't have Colorado Caribous, we don't have New York Cosmos. But since the Cosmos didn't bother to challenge CONCACAF teams (robbing us of what would have been magnificent showdowns with Cabinho's Pumas teams), it seems ever so slightly ironic to say MLS is holding American teams back in international competition.
What we do have are packed houses in Cascadia to Canada to Kansas City. If you feel MLS fans are watching an inferior, mediocre product, then explain why they're having such a good time with it. Perhaps even in parity, it's still a beautiful game.
Unless of course you're a Galaxy fan watching your wonder team stink up the free world, but then that's part of the fun, too...I guess.