I’m an MLS junkie. I miss my league. If you’re reading this, you probably do to. It’s a blessing that our home league has come so far that we spend our winters lamenting its absence. But, with every blessing comes a curse. For us domestically-dedicated types, that curse is the foul-breathed dragon that hovers over all of us during the offseason — its wings sprinkling irrationality, misplaced anger, frustration and hate into our morning coffee, making us all horrible people with nothing better to do than scream at each other through our keyboards and screens.
From about a week after MLS Cup until the week players show up for preseason camps, MLS fans — myself included — are all terrible. Thankfully, the offseason ice is starting to crack, and teams are reconvening and flying off to Florida for early camps. As the hope and promise of spring approaches at a quicker pace, let’s come together as a family, talk about where it all went wrong this winter, and promise to be better to ourselves. It’s a promise we’ll break next year, but these are the sorts of lies that serve as the bedrock of civilization.
This is the Things You Don’t Actually Care About XI. The all-stars of wasted, negative energy. Friendships crumbled, families were torn apart. American soccer conversations became so caustic this winter, that from all reports, New York City no longer exists, its landmarks and buildings melted by the venom flying to and from both local clubs and the league offices on 5th Avenue.
1. Promotion and Relegation
Stop this. Stop this now. Unless you live on the fringe of the fringe of American soccer fandom, you have spent infinitely more energy debating promotion and relegation than it deserves. Whether you’re for or against it, you don’t actually know if it’s financially or logistically viable and you don’t know how it would impact the game. What you do know is that there’s is absolutely no chance of the system being implemented in this country any time soon, yet we argue it like there’s a public referendum on the table next election day.
2. MLS Roster Rules
You claim to be a longtime, die-hard fan of Major League Soccer, yet you are still somehow surprised or angry when something strange happens with the rule book. This is more of a reflection on you that it is on the league. Being pissed at MLS for being strange is like yelling at your goldfish for not being cuddly. You knew what you were getting into. Unlike the first three months with your ex, MLS never tried to hide its crazy. Admit it, you like it weird, and MLS is giving you exactly what you want. So shut up.
3. Hope Solo
Speaking of unencumbered crazy, let’s rap about Hope Solo. You, me and everyone with a keyboard has lodged a public opinion about her, her legal troubles, her husband and her place with the U.S. national team. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that we don’t actually care about Hope Solo the person or her well-being, at least not to the level that we pretend to. What we care about are headlines, and how we see her through our personal lenses of nationalism, athlete privilege and that ridiculous gender equality angle that brought Ray Rice comparisons.
4. Youth Development
If your club of choice ran off a few consecutive years of success — however you define that — and didn’t feature a single player that was either under the age of 27 or born within a hundred-mile radius of the stadium, you would take no less joy in it. Young players and homegrown talent is a nice thing to have. It’s fun to dream about the future. But never lie to yourself and pretend that you are more concerned with the makeup of your team’s roster than you are about wins or losses.
If referees are bad everywhere, are referees actually bad anywhere? “The officiating in League X” is a joke is a common refrain every weekend of the soccer calendar. There is not a single fan collective anywhere on the planet that sings the praises of referees. Not only do you not care about so-called “bad” officiating, you love it. Soccer is a theatrical sport. More than anything, human drama is what separates it from all the others we watch. A blown offside call here, or a strictly given yellow card there only add the fun of the unexpected. If you wanted consistency or predictability, you wouldn’t be an avid soccer fan.
6. Youth Internationals
The U.S. under-20 team just struggled their way through CONCACAF qualification to reach May’s U-20 World Cup. As if out of patriotic obligation, or fear of not being ahead of the curve, many fans filled our social media feeds with messages of dread and existential panic, wondering what it meant that the young Americans couldn’t dominate what we assumed to be lesser competition. Somehow, we turn a presently unspectacular U-20 squad into a defeatist attitude about how these boys will possibly perform in senior World Cups eight to twelve years from now. That’s a hell of a long time. Any number of things can happen to these kids’ careers, and youth tournaments have never been a consistent indicator of future national team success. Just enjoy the tournament for what it is, in its own bubble, and hope our guys do well.
7. “Retirement League”
The notion that MLS is the Florida of soccer leagues, a place for old people to move while they wait to die, will never go away. The pending arrivals of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard for tons of money only raised the volume this offseason. No, these players are not in their primes, but MLS in not yet in a place where they could attract or afford them if they were. They both still have a few quality miles left in their legs, and are damn good options to see in a soccer stadium you can actually drive to. The “retirement league” notion is tied up in the idea that as fans, Americans should be at all concerned with how MLS is perceived by people outside of the country. When you turn on your TV or sit in the stands every weekend, you’re enjoying yourself. That’s all that matters. Let any outside noise fade.
8. American Players Coming Home
The flip-side of the “retirement league” coin is the hand-wringing over American players, particularly national team members returning to MLS when still in their prime. The idea of them “pushing themselves” in Europe is a strange thing to hold on to, because we have no indisputable evidence that players like Altidore, Bradley or Dempsey were better served by continuing their careers abroad. We say we want MLS to grow, but we’re upset when it acquires talent that we all want to see. We say we want American players to have bigger and better opportunities, but we begrudge them for making big money at home. We worship Landon Donovan as the be-all and end-all of American soccer, but knock players who play in North America for reasons of playing time, personal comfort, or finances. If MLS is what we love, there’s no reason to see growing off the strength of young American talent as a negative.
9. January National Team Camp
We call it “Camp Cupcake” for a reason. There is no make-or-break element to the January national team camp. It’s a time for Jürgen Klinsmann to experiment with players, formations, yoga positions, dietary supplements — whatever he feels like doing. The two friendlies following this camp are essentially scrimmages to prepare for better scrimmages to prepare for the real thing, this summer’s Gold Cup. Yet we’ll still argue about which players were called in, what style the team is using and any number of useless fact points that will be void in a few months.
10. Jürgen Klinsmann Quotes
The Klinsmann era of U.S. Soccer has completely altered the way we collectively approach the game. Every time he speaks, he shifts our perspective, tone and expectations. The thing is, when Jürgen is talking to the press and coming off as some combination of Jedi, disappointed father and spiritual adviser, he isn’t talking to us, the fans. He’s indirectly speaking to his players through the media. Right or wrong, it’s part of his methodology. Still, fans have taken his commentary on all aspects of the American system, and internalized them. Since the World Cup, we have been in a rush to prove that we are a smarter, savvier and more sophisticated fan than the person sitting next to us at the bar. The air has been sucked out of the balloon and a lot of the unique and quirky American-ness that we applied to our game has died. We’ve misinterpreted mission objectives that weren’t meant for us, and it’s killing our buzz.
11. Each Other’s Opinions
Finally, despite the fact that you may have found yourself getting upset — or at least trying to — while reading this, you don’t actually care about my opinion on any of these subjects. I’m just some guy fortunate enough to have a published blog. My opinion is no more or less qualified than yours. The same goes for all journalists, commentators, critics and media personalities. For the most part, they’re all just fans. Sometimes, fans with a dirty secret that they watch less soccer than “civilians”.
That’s not to say you should ignore or disregard anything I, or anyone else, has to say. It means don’t care about it enough to let it affect your blood pressure. Be entertained, be informed, or be dismissive, it’s all good. None of this really matters. We’re all just space dust flying through the cosmos, man. After all, this is a game we’re talking about. Let’s have some fun.