Birth of a Soccer ‘Zealot’

“A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for the Lord;” Isaiah 40: 3a (NIV)

Steven Goff got everything right regarding his piece in the Washington Post calling for U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati to step down and not seek a fourth term. Goff’s call for a new direction for the nation and a fresh leadership is the reasoning for his article. But while I agree with nearly everything Mr. Goff wrote, I found myself rankled by one part of his tome which wasn’t necessary to the piece.

“It shouldn’t take failure of a World Cup qualifying campaign or a pack of pitchfork-carrying zealots demanding promotion and relegation in the pro game to run him off.”

Zealots?

I can see how Mr. Goff might associate soccer fans who are passionate for the game to be very vocal regarding the development of the professional game her in the United States. But to call them zealots? Heck, I, myself believe the time for club level promotion and relegation of American soccer is now. However, the idea of me being a zealot is humorous.

My idea of a zealot is a John the Baptist-esque person out in the wilderness yelling “Prepare Ye The Way of Promotion and Relegation”. In between rants, the zealot chomps on a diet of grasshoppers and Powerade while walking in the wilderness with his Paul Pogba boots and a Manchester United kit over his camel skin covering.  

Top names in soccer media hear the crying from fans to bring a pro/rel approach to the American game. I can see where the term could stick. “What do these fans know about the way soccer operates?” These writers and other fans trust the direction of Major League Soccer’s Commissioner Don Garber and United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati.  They will argue fans don’t understand that the model in the United States is different from other leagues of the world. 

Truth is, it is hard to argue the success of the MLS. With the addition of Minnesota and Atlanta this year, and a Los Angeles franchise a year later (plus many other cities on the list to join) it is hard not to admire and applaud the growth of soccer from the MLS from its start in 1996.

Despite its successes, the MLS is a cautious brand that plays it safe and places itself where it could fold as a league. It nearly folded in 2002 before a legal battle helped keep the league a single-entity structure organization. The court ruling ensured the league would have control of everything from administrative hierarchy down to player salaries in order to keep costs from skyrocketing and threatening the league.

When I first put money in season tickets for the Columbus Crew SC, I truly thought the way the MLS was operating was the best thing for soccer in America. I thought the idea of promotion and relegation—popular in most of the world’s federations– was a pipe dream and it would be best for the sport here in America to go the “slow and steady” path the leadership had set forth for the nation. That was until I started to really pay attention to European soccer and the successes they show year end and out.

Between scheduling, the quality of players they are able to train and develop, and give the opportunity for a first team experience– their system worked better than anything we’ve put together here in the US. The moves of the MLS were made for their own survival. They do this because they know the history of leagues of the past that have started and folded.

Even with such cautious pragmatism, compare MLS with England’s Premier League. All you have to do is watch the last day of the season when those teams on the bubble know if they win they survive to reap the profits and benefits top clubs make in staying above the relegation zone. Those who don’t know the last day could be the beginning of the end. When the final whistle is blown, the faces of relief and doom are etched like Renaissance paintings detailing the passion and pain of the moment.

The clubs at the top on the last day, know if they win into the top three or four spots, it’s Champions League next season– and other tournament benefits. Additionally, the top players in the world must play each and every match, each and every season, to prove the money paid for their talent is well spent. Talent is not just found outside the borders of their nation, but from within. Their infrastructure ensures that soccer/ world football is played on every level by kids no matter the social background of the player—male and female.

Recently, I watched the Netflix documentary “Being Zlatan”.  Zlatan Ibrahimović, of Manchester United, developed from a teen phenomenon to a world class player. By his own admission, if it wasn’t for the availability of soccer via the many clubs and academies offered to him as a youth, he probably would have taken a darker road. Not just Zlatan, but the world would have missed out on names such as Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney, and many others who first touch the ball in their youth in some of the hardest circumstances imaginable.

The genie is out of the bottle and many soccer lovers here in the states wish we could have what they have. Like the moment in the deli,  in the movie “When Harry Met Sally”, would make many fans proclaim “I’ll have what they are having.”  The majority of American soccer fans know if pro/rel was available they’d have it running immediately. To have a system like the rest of the world is using, a schedule that would align itself with the rest of the world of soccer (with minor tweaking to accommodate for weather and players health here in our nation), the chance to compete for the top players in the world in their prime and not when nearing the twilight of their careers; this is what many who support a move want more than anything.

When I was a season ticket holder for two years with the Columbus Crew SC, I loved the team and the supporter culture a lot and have friends who are still fans. But my dissatisfaction of the game is not because of them but because of the current system we have running the game.  While the MLS and USSF can boast the advancement of the sport’s popularity (and yes, it has helped to do this in many ways) there is still a lagging in one area in particular: The growth of the game on the urban front. While kids in the suburbs have access (at a high price) to get the top training and competition against other select soccer groups– sometimes traveling great distances to play them at the cost of parents paying for the experience– many youth in the urban centers fall through the crack. The soccer infrastructure of the rest of the world would offer a bigger push to engage with minorities and immigrants to be part of the game, be it recreation level or pick up matches. But the big clubs and the national federations would make a deep impact in those areas. In the United States, not so much.   Many of those neighborhoods are more likely to see basketball courts and football fields rather than soccer pitches. African Americans only see the sport as a recreational kind of thing you play in gym class than something you do to have fun after school while getting your friends together to play 11 on 11.  

Growing up, I played basketball from sun up to sundown with dreams of being the next Julius Ervin or Kareem Abdul Jabaar. I would spend an entire summer day going from one place to the other playing the game. Whether it was playing “21” on a fine wooden court, an asphalt court, or making courts of our own with milk crates just so we could play.

When I started becoming a fan of soccer I remember hearing stories about kids in African nations too poor to afford a ball or “boots” (cleats) but made do by taking socks to roll up and make into a legal ball then find a place to play meant playing in muddy or dusty grounds big enough to mark off the lines, make goals and get to playing. Hearing stories like that is something I can relate to because that was me when I was their age. I wanted to play and even if the accessibility to play wasn’t there I’d make it happen. I can tell you today we don’t see this happening in our neighborhoods because, like our bridges and roads in our nation, a national move to connect the country and make the game more accessible and affordable to everyone on every level is not there. I could go on, but I will save this point for another article. Safe to say, the game is in much need of a push to bring it to inner cities, giving youth the opportunity and dreams to play in the big leagues. It’s not there for the MLS or the national team, but trust me, there are kids who dream of being the next Dak Preston or LeBron James rather than being the next Messi/Ronaldo in our nation. This trend alone is in dire need of leadership and, sadly, for all the talk of MLS being the next big world league destination they can’t even be located in the toughest neighborhoods in the country by youth involved in sports.

So, I sit in front of my laptop wondering whether my concern and criticism about the status of the game of soccer in America makes me some heated “zealot”. I wonder if my two cents will even make a difference. But if I don’t open my mouth up and say I’m not happy with the product I am being fed, it makes me just a silent tool trusting that the current leadership’s trajectory is the best thing for this sport both now and the future. Deep down, I can’t put up with it anymore. The song by Christian artist Russ Taft (from my church days) rings true in me: “I’m tired of great big men, with ego kingdoms in mind/ trying to tell me how to spend my money and time. All that will shake is gonna shake!”

So if a zealot I’m called, then a zealot I will be.

The word travels back to the New Testament times where the mention of zealots trying to tear down the Roman empires influence is dated back to Jesus’ time. At one point, the zealots did take over Jerusalem but as the Roman Empire took the city over and drove them to the mountain fortress of Messada– they fought and eventually killed themselves rather than be prisoners of the Roman army. But as of late, being termed a zealot is both derogatory and damning. To be called one says you are willing to burn down and destroy anyone or thing to put in a purified system that could be doomed to failure; That a zealot is one that can’t be reasoned with or shown facts to prove their way may not be the best way forward. In today’s political scene, being called one is showing you have the zeal to see your political bent established –but not the willingness to meet in the middle to make things work so all sides are heard before a workable solution.

The truth is, I do not want to squash the zeal of the church of soccer in this nation. In fact, I applaud the efforts of the MLS to grow the game the best they see fit and the success they’ve garnered over the years. My beef with them is for them to position themselves as the end all-be all for soccer in this nation. This stomps on the feet of all those owners and players from “lower leagues” who want a stake at playing at the top level with the top clubs our nation offers. Continuing to bury Division 3 and 4 clubs to enhance the MLS and their structure as the only way to go is both foolhardy and senseless. Soccer existed in this nation before the MLS was established. If fans want to find out for themselves they can see we have over 100 years of the sport in pictures, papers, and players. The actual problem is a sustainable system and infrastructure has never been established where it can truly rival our International rivals.

A few years ago I would have argued that promotion/relegation won’t happen in my lifetime. Today, I say “why not?!” Other ‘zealots’ and I argue support of the pyramid system in respective leagues and know what makes soccer compelling and competitive in other places and know such a system would work here in the United States. We see what works in other nations and see how it betters the sport, the athletes, and the entire national infrastructure of soccer.  Let’s not be naïve to say there are not problems within such systems: the growing price tag for the best players, television revenue, etc. If I was an advertiser looking at both MLS and the rest of the world– I’m choosing the rest of the world. The MLS strides in making the sport popular should be applauded, but the marketing and influence the rest of the world’s players are doing to make the sport popular and their clubs inviting to watch.

Sadly, healthy criticism of soccer’s current structure is derided as “un-American” and “hurting the sport”. The receivers of such criticism do not desire or cannot handle alternate viewpoints. Why would they take the time to find out why fans, like myself, feel it’s time to change the soccer structure of our nation once and for all? We need a healthy debate, but one which both sides can sit across the table from each other and lay everything down and say “show me what you got”. Restructuring cannot happen over 140 characters on a Twitter account. I think we are way past time for such muted discussions. We need a national platform and movement to demand, as consumers of the sport, better from our leadership. We need the organization to send a clear and urgent message for the sake of our clubs, our country, and (most importantly) the national men’s and women’s teams. We need a national movement to change the course and repair the neglect soccer has suffered for decades.

We are not alone in the world of soccer that is contrary to what FIFA rules specify for each club and federation. Australia is the other hold-out where the Hyundai A-League, the sister league to the MLS, is on the verge of seeing movement in the struggle to adopt an International calendar and adhere to a Pro/Rel pyramid system of their own. The First Eleven blog has an excellent article explaining both the USSF and FFA (Football Federation of Australia) being in the cross-hairs of FIFA regarding the current status of their respective leagues.

Until there is actual movement by FIFA to cause the USSF to comply with the rest of the world, we must as fans of the sport raise our voices. We must take the fight to the streets and to the federation. The movement must get beyond the talk on social media and move to a national front. My hope is we will see that happen sooner rather than later.

But if soccer media continues to portray true concern and grievance about how the sport is run and reduce such rhetoric from our vocabulary, it shows a lack of true journalistic curiosity to even see why people are vehemently against the current structure in the sport. We are told by this same media and the leadership levels of MLS and USSF to just ignore the successes of those other countries, and the pro/rel system they’ve developed, and just take what they give us. We don’t belong in the boardroom. We don’t deserve a voice as to how we want the game to be played. We are clueless of how American soccer works, never mind all the findings that show the opposite. We should just take our soccer given to us, rinse, and repeat never talking again about such things because at the end of the day our American soccer brain trust is way more advanced than those crying for change.

As I write this, someone tweeted a picture from a match in Tunisia. It was a friendly match by Tunisia’s Club Africain and Ligue 1’s top club Paris Saint Germine. A banner (Tifo) was shown from the rafters of the stadium said this:

“Football, created by the poor, stolen by the rich”

No truer words could be said about the current state of the game and this truly reflects what is at stake in our nation. It’s always the powerful and the rich here that try to dictate the direction of sport in our nation. The rich and powerful of the sport dictate the status quo direction that MLS has taken and I believe, as do others, that it is to the detriment of the sport. A pyramid structure, adherence to the International schedule, a commitment to grow the game, and have it equally available and funded so all children of all backgrounds get a fair share at developing their game together, side by side, fusing our talent together and thus forming a truly American identity that bridges the styles of every nation. These points and others are some of the blocks needed in truly growing the game to new heights in our nation.

On the club level, the MLS can either go one of two ways—either fuse into a true pro/rel pyramid structure where their clubs can face off against other clubs in other divisions or be the soccer equivalent to the NFL.  If the MLS chooses the later I think the Hunt family could remind Commissioner Garber what happened the last time someone wanted to start a league to go up against the NFL. That someone was one of the founding father’s of the league– Lamar Hunt. His American Football League went up against the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and eventually merging both leagues together. Teams like the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins, to name a few, would never be if Mr. Hunt didn’t believe that expanding the league to other cities could be a thing instead of fighting against the leadership running the NFL during his time. If the MLS is not careful to embrace such an International system, it may find itself looking from the outside as clubs outside their league could flourish without them in the next 20 years.

I see more benefits than problems with following FIFA’s way of doing things. But if writing this down makes me a “zealot”, then fine. If that’s what I am to be labeled than so be it. But change is coming. It is coming because I’m not the only voice crying in the wilderness. I’m not the only fan who believes the time is now to really talk about instituting a pro/rel scenario.  What’s sad is when I hear those in the media and others speak against it they sound like school kids who don’t like the actual rules of how the game is played and instead will hold the ball and find another field to play even if it means they play alone.

If being a zealot means my national team will get better players because they are trained on equal footing regardless of background or income than hand me my camel skin coat.

If being a zealot means my Dayton Dynamo FC will one day play against Indy11 or the Columbus Crew in a bracket which has a prize pf moving up the table and to the next level then pass me the jar of dried grasshoppers.

If being a soccer zealot means our national team is bettered by having players honed in the American system that develops its players from ages three to 23 ready to take on any country. 

If it means we’ll be aligned with the rest of the world and fans will take the time to look at us for good quality matches and drama as clubs go up or down the table then pass me the jar of honey and give me my staff.

We need voices crying in the soccer wilderness! And if enough voices are preaching the same Gospel of change to our national soccer infrastructure, then sooner or later, other fans will come out and join us. The possibilities are there, the stakes are high, and the movement is about to find its feet.

One Reply to “Birth of a Soccer ‘Zealot’”

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each
    time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *