The reason I've been pump-faking about a 2018 review is, well, so many assumptions about the state of American soccer went up in flames last year. In a good way.
It's even affected my ability to spin a metaphor. Can something go up in flames in a good way? The Zeppelin Baggage-Handlers Union begs to differ.
The year 2018, from the point of view of the United States National Teams? Please Stand By.
The women are preparing for a World Cup that should be exciting and well-played, and I've got high hopes for the US either because or despite Jill Ellis, I haven't made up my mind yet. But this is the year that matters.
The other ongoing story in American women's soccer is the NWSL and its painful march towards something resembling full professionalism. I still take it as an article of faith that the fortunes of the NWSL and the US women's national team are linked, if not conjoined. But I took it as a similar article of faith four years ago, when the US won the whole thing and were entertaining and enjoyable while doing it. The NWSL has survived, but not prospered – not with the Breakers folding and Sky Blue being so embarrassing it's actually spilling out into mainstream culture.
What does it say if we need spectacular USWNT success just to have enough fan goodwill to trickle down into NWSL survival? I would say the NWSL is worth keeping afloat just to preserve future USWNT successes – having the talent pool available for national team wins pays for itself in the long run.
Let's also keep another thing in mind. The NWSL is the all-time most successful women's pro soccer league. It takes time for these things to grow – just look at MLS.
That's what I would say. What you might say, however, is "How do you know the USWNT and NWSL are actually co-dependent?" And I would stammer and mumble, because 2018 was the year we learned that this is not the case on the men's side.
I hope you, gentle reader, are made of sterner stuff than I am. Because every time it occurs to me that MLS prospered last year while the US men's national team twisted in the wind like a dead raisin? Friends, I am nonplussed. In fact, I am downright subtracted.
For some reason even now I feel wary about overtalking Atlanta United. They only won the Single, after all. The Third United is hugely popular, but so is Seattle, so is Portland, and so will Cincinnati and Nashville be.
Atlanta United sold out its MLS Cup in a football stadium, and just sold a player for twenty-seven million donuts. All this in a year that was supposed to be an American soccer desert.
And the US men's national team still is in the desert. They are absolutely paying the price for the sins of 2017 – their tickets are overpriced, their games are sparsely attended, their TV ratings are negligible. I'm optimistic about the Stewart-Berhalter-Pulisic era, if only because, what's the point of being pessimistic? The worst has already happened. But there's optimistic about the future, and being willing to trade a picture of Ulysses Grant in exchange to watch the first step of the journey. The USMNT isn't even to Farmer Maggot's mushroom patch yet, let alone Mordor.
Now that's a metaphor. I should teach classes.
But there's Atlanta United. They're the current darlings of MLS, but we're not supposed to have MLS darlings right now. Unless we're actually to the point where the popularity of MLS is independent of the popularity of the US men's national team.
Yeah, I know. Just like any other league and any other sport in the entire world. Maybe I've been wrong about this all along, but I really don't think so. I believe the 2002 World Cup performance gave MLS a new lease on life. Not just in a zeitgeisty "US men's soccer wasn't painful anymore" way, but in a "SUM made fat stacks off the rights to that tournament getting more valuable every day the tournament went on, and provided incentive to keep MLS at least as a loss leader."
In 2018 SUM no longer had the rights to a World Cup the US boycotted, that was won by yuck, FRANCE. There wasn't so much a World Cup boost as a daily reminder of humiliation at the hands of Trinidad.
And here's Major League Soccer, in a better position than ever.
This was during a year where MLS fought a loud, ugly, public fight to move one of its original franchises, and lost comprehensively. I would argue that's another sign of the league's strength, despite itself. Unpopular leagues playing unpopular sports are not supposed to have that kind of fan power. MLS didn't realize how well-liked the Crew were, which is – well, stop and think for a moment. Usually this kind of managerial and marketing incompetence goes in the direction of overestimating a product's popularity. MLS has the incompetence, but hasn't lost the affection of its customers.
Sports fans can be weird like that. The nation is crammed with fans who hate their league and commissioner, but love their local team. You don't see people knocking back Snickers while cursing M&M/Mars, or driving F-150's while damning Ford. Brand loyalty isn't usually antagonistic.
But here's MLS. Deprived of its most reliable publicity, and inflicting wounds on itself for months at a time, only to sell out its final and market its players worldwide. MLS succeeding despite itself does not cancel out the success. Yes, it's a wonderful sport with fun things happening every week of the year somewhere in the world – but those things were true in the 1970's, and whither your Memphis Rogues?
I thought the difference was a popular and successful national team program. (Relatively speaking. Was a time when a 1970's US men's national team would have cheerfully settled for waiting until the last game of qualification to be eliminated.) If that was a logical fallacy, well, it was a logical fallacy embraced by both league and federation. If MLS has success independent of the US men's national team – or better still, if MLS can benefit from US men's national team success while being inoculated to their failures? I don't think I'm exaggerating – this is a different set of assumptions than anything we've had before. Atlanta and Columbus have called a lot of beliefs into question – in a very good way.
Are there still, shall we say, challenges that face America's pro leagues? Oh my yes. Almost all of your favorite pre-Real Salt Lake teams don't win as much or draw anywhere near as many fans as they should. There is currently fighting in the streets over whether Chicago or New England is the worst, but don't sleep on Colorado.
But even the San Jose Earthquakes have a shiny new coach, Miguel Almeyda. I hate to join the cult of the coach, but it's such a clear and obvious upgrade that you'd have to think the positive effects will be seen sooner rather than later. There's even a nice little Boca-River rivalry now with Guillermo Barros Schelotto taking over in Los Angeles. Hopefully California's buses will survive.
And those are the trouble spots. The Pacific Northwest is still in a golden age, Atlanta doubly so. Even Philadelphia is spending money to compete. There are good, solid reasons to see every team in the league. Except New England, but there's no helping some people. The Rapids have Kei Kamara now, and Tim Howard is having a long goodbye! That should at least be amusingly terrible.
Oh, and the men's national team is still charging anywhere from twice to four times as much as they should be. Apart from Christian Pulisic, the US has no stars worthy of paying international ticket prices for. If the plan is to have Berhalter build the team away from the prying eyes of fans and media, then by all means keep prices at a level meant to draw fans in the middle four figures.
But those problems are not the problems of Major League Soccer. I can't get over this – MLS is not only immune from the woes of the USMNT, it can actually carry America's soccer interest while the USMNT uncraps the bed.
This was supposed to be a lull in the sport in this country – passing time until the US returns to the World Cup, and passing that time until the US hosts the World Cup. It wasn't supposed to be genuinely positive and enjoyable.
Even the expansion process, which between Austin and Columbus was crushingly awful, hasn't chased out anyone. Landon Donovan is still pushing San Diego, St. Louis hasn't given up, San Antonio and Sacramento aren't suing MLS.
And Don Garber, who started out 2018 well on his way to becoming one of the sport's all-time villains, has been re-upped for another five years, pretty much by acclamation.
Major League Soccer, man. Somebody up there tolerates you.
Another US soccer legend has died far too young. Fernando Clavijo died at the age of 63. Steve Davis at the USSF site has the definitive retrospective on his career.