Ever since the arrival of Aron Winter at Toronto FC, fans have witnessed a major culture clash at BMO Field. It isn’t as much Dutch tactics versus the sometimes more direct, route one approach of the Mo Johnston regime, but a difference in philosophy about the nature of professional football itself. We’ve seen elements of it discussed in the past few months on this blog—Winter’s decision not to allow press access to the dressing in direct contravention of MLS protocols, for example. Winter comes from a European tradition in which the league is the mere scaffolding for the all-powerful clubs, and the means by which top flight teams can negotiate the distribution of TV rights moneys. He believes the manager should dictate press access, not the league. This is of course a very different vision of pro football than that of MLS, with a single-entity financial ownership structure, strict wage cap and draft rules, and an unspoken mandate to further the growth of soccer in the United States and now Canada.
Now, with MLS club Real Salt Lake two legs away from winning the CONCACAF Champions League and securing a berth at the Club World Cup in Japan, MLS is once again, philosophically at least, putting the collective ahead of the league’s individual clubs. The Twitter hashtag #MLS4RSL has popped up courtesy of league executive vice president Dan Courtemanche, and several players and fans have spoken out in support of the Utah club, reasoning that what’s good for one MLS team is good for the league. Obviously RSL’s appearance at the Club World Cup, facing the best teams from each continental confederation and enjoying a massive TV audience, would go a long way for the league’s global image and legitimacy. If the league became more attractive to foreign talent as a result, then fans of all clubs benefit.
Still, my first response to the debate over whether fans of other MLS teams should care one way or another if RSL beats Monterrey was negative. Would Manchester United fans support Liverpool in Europe? Or would AC Milan fans support Inter in the Champions League for the sake of Serie A’s UEFA coefficient ranking? Obviously MLS is still young, and soccer is vulnerable enough in the US and Canada that it’s important to support its growth as an internationally-recognized league, if only to give it more credibility at home. But part of that growth should involve moving away from obsessing over existential fears about MLS’ future or its image abroad, and more toward developing autonomous, regionally-focused club cultures. The league would do better to secure its future by fomenting healthy supporters’ cultures in its various markets by way of youth academies, supporters trusts, and charity initiatives, so that its absence in those communities would be more keenly felt. Because ultimately clubs ignite and fuel fan interest, not leagues or an amorphous belief in the importance of “growing soccer” in America.
Yesterday’s announcement about MLSE’s $17.4 million investment in training facilities in Downsview for TFC is a good example of a positive step toward MLS club autonomy. And it’s unrealistic and downright dangerous for MLS to abandon the current single-entity structure, or to allow individual clubs to recklessly spend well in excess of their Designated Player slots in an attempt to dominate the league. But MLS should take advantage of its collective financial structure to work more behind the scenes in supporting its member clubs within their local markets (it could do much better in that department than say the Premier League). It should spend less time promoting its brand up against other North American sports giants like the NFL or NBA. In other words, MLS needs less Don Garber and more Sigi Schmidt. Less single-entity debates in the football blogosphere and more focus on the health of individual clubs.
For now, fans of other MLS clubs should take note of RSL’s progress. Not with support, but with jealousy. Not for hope the world will grow to love MLS, but for hope their own club might one day aspire to what RSL has achieved. Because at the league expands and improves, RSL won’t be alone as MLS’ representative on the global club football stage. As time goes by and its clubs become more and more an accepted and integral part of their local sports markets, Major League Soccer will achieve the recognition it craves. It doesn’t need our support in getting there. Its clubs, however, do.