“There are two kinds of artists left,” said Scottish singer Annie Lennox in an interview some years ago. “Those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.”
Quite what kind of artistry is required to function as Major League Soccer’s commissioner is anyone’s guess, though yesterday’s announcement that a partnership between an Arabian-owned soccer club from England and a brand-driven Major League Baseball franchise had secured the rights to the league’s 20th team suggests that Don Garber’s Manhattan office has been submerged in a carbonated soft drink.
New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s eyes must be lighting up at the prospective soda tax revenue.
The meaning of a soccer club has been radically shifted in the past 20 years. Television, Internet and social media have fueled a perceived “need” for greater marketing, more promotions and gimmicks, while differences between social classes and ethnicities have largely gentrified. Overworked coalminers and oppressed Catholics are no longer required to rally together by kicking a leather ball around a field.
Yet at its core, at its very essence, a soccer club still shines brightest as a badge of identity for the local community that has built and supported it. Similarly in Annie Lennox’s world, musicians that hone their talent through years of live performances command infinitely greater respect than the manufactured puppets thrust into the mainstream by dollar-chasing Svengalis.
So where is the local community that has built or supported New York City Football Club? Team 20 holds all the authenticity of Justin Bieber, and things could become more unpalatable if the David Beckham/Simon Fuller South Beach Spice Boys Football Club comes to fruition.
MLS has been forced to create franchises in the past. The United States was without a national professional soccer league until its inception in December 1993. It had to invent teams from somewhere. We are no longer in that place. Philadelphia earned an expansion franchise in 2008 after a grassroots movement convinced the league that the city could support a club and MLS has tapped the existing lower-division teams in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Montreal.
Smaller clubs have been popping up in the lower tiers from Sacramento to Tampa Bay. Orlando City has developed a thriving youth structure topped off by an excellent senior team with attendances in the United Soccer Leagues that at least two MLS franchises would be proud of. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ efforts to infuse the club into their surroundings has led to the construction of a new home at Highmark Stadium that has room for enlargement. Players are required to participate in youth training clinics to foster the link between club and community.
Can a soccer team from the Moss Side neighborhood of Manchester in England really represent the people of New York?
Previous efforts to launch professional soccer leagues in North America floundered under a top-down approach that focused on importing star power rather than building the game from the ground up. It seems that Garber has temporarily forgotten to apply the lesson in his hometown under the hypnotic influence of Arabian oil billions.
NYCFC will no doubt attract some followers when they start play in 2015. Some people still watch Hollywood movies. Kim Kardashian manages to attract 18 million Twitter followers. Third-rate beer originating from St. Louis still shifts more units than far superior crafted products. But true soccer fans won’t buy it.
“Hellas is a feeling, a faith,” said former Danish national team striker Preben Elkjaer Larsen in describing the Verona side that he helped toward the Italian Serie A championship in 1985. “Not a check to stick in your pocket.”
Larsen understands soccer fans whether they hail from Copenhagen or Coney Island. Garber, it seems, never will.
March 17, 2013 — Weak Product Undermines MLS Rivalry Week