October 8, 2014

ZAKOUR | Support the MLS: It’s a Patriotic Duty

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What’s the greatest “will they or won’t they” love story in history? Americans and soccer.

I’m going to preface this by saying I call the beautiful game soccer, not football. Sorry. I mean no disrespect, really. But I grew up, as did every other child in the USA, calling it soccer and the NFL football. The mental unconscious association is just too strong — it will always be soccer to me. Football is Peyton Manning to me.

The World Cup is always the most important sporting event of the year. It attracts the attention of the whole world, minus a few countries, while most sports only attract a certain number of countries or a continent at best. The NFL is our sport. The NHL is Canada’s and our sport — shared, but knowing Canada would win custody if it came to that. The NBA is also our sport, but it’s becoming a number two option in parts of Europe and South America. The MLB is our sport that has had the time to blossom, like the NBA, in parts of Central America and Asia. But soccer is truly the world’s sport. We all know that.

The World Cup, coming from someone who doesn’t know the details and intricacies of soccer as well as other sports, is an amazing event. It’s such an amazing event that countries are willing to build stadiums and complexes for the honor of hosting them, similar to the Olympics. But unlike the Olympics, the importance of the World Cup extends into the other three years. We know all the players; we don’t need to be introduced to them like we do at the Olympic games. The World Cup also invites fierce rivalries and allegiances, more intense than those possible for club and team sports. The national allegiance, although country lines are somewhat imagined, is more vivid and real.

Not to mention that the World Cup is awesome to watch. It stands as the shining example of sports spanning languages, cultures and oceans. What other event invites all continents with seemingly equal vigor? What other sport could make it possible?

Now this isn’t to say that soccer is inherently the best sport on Earth, but it certainly is the most supported. It’s breathtaking, and we lose sight of this. It was awesome to support Team USA’s run and to watch their heartbreaking loss to Belgium, but we can do better. We, as Americans, can put together a team that can win it all. And not just with Jurgen Klinsmann taking the best dual nationals in the world. That’s why I’m asking my fellow sports fan to do their patriotic duty. No, I’m not talking about voting. I’m talking about supporting the MLS.

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For us to show our American pride, we have to measure our sports against the world’s sport. Soccer. As long as it’s the sporting metric system, let’s use it. I love our sports and our sports leagues. They have different personalities, cultures and histories. But they are our pastimes, not the world’s. If we want to be the best sporting nation in the world (which we all do, even if it’s not a goal I expect Obama to proudly announce), we have to to establish our soccer prowess. We have to subscribe to the sensibilities of the world. So let’s support MLS. Let’s help soccer grow in America, and get every MLS game televised. Pick a team to support. There are two new good options coming soon in New York FC (with David Villa and Frank Lampard!) and Orlando City Soccer Club (complete with a purple color scheme and Kaka). Even if the rank and file will never be as supported as an NFL player, let’s make it so our American soccer stars are on par with any other athlete.

I want the U.S. to compete every cycle with the best teams in the world, not just for second tier. And a big part of this will be the growth of soccer domestically. The MLS will never be La Liga or the Premier League, but it just needs to get to the point where it can churn out American players who are routinely transferred to the most lucrative and high profile teams in the world. Brazil and Argentina’s domestic leagues can’t compete with Spain’s La Liga either, but they’re still a solid infrastructure of soccer development.

In the same vein, I can forgive when our sports leagues have those overseas games and exhibitions. I can forgive the insistence on games in London, even to the chagrin of American fans. I understand the turmoil and the scheduling havoc wreaked. It’s for the growth of the game. It’s about marketing the product, but also cultivation of something. It’s the first steps of creating an international, grand competition for other sports. As I think I’ve made clear by now, I love the idea of the World cup. I am infatuated with it; but more than anything, I’m envious of it. Or envious that it is limited to soccer. I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, as much flack as he catches for it, seems hellbent on helping the NFL grow in Europe, evidenced by his London games. NBA commissioner Adam Silver also has his leagues play in London and even Mexico City. Imagine a basketball or baseball World Cup, inspiring a following like soccer’s. Yes, they already have their competitions, but FIBA World Cup and the World Baseball Classic don’t hold a candle to the real thing. And they probably never will. But I love the idea of a true basketball world cup, where the USA isn’t a shoe-in every year. We’d be the basketball answer to Brazil or England, ever arrogant about our place in the sport, even if it’s unjustified. Moreover, we could have a champions league of basketball where NBA teams face off with the best teams in Europe. We could have a true world series, with the best Japanese team squaring off with the best team in the MLB for the title of world champion.

OK, so the last two seem a little far off, although not impossible. But it isn’t so hard to imagine the U.S. as a soccer power, not a Brazil or Germany, but maybe a Netherlands. So let’s watch the MLS, pick a team and support it. Yes, they do play during NFL sundays, but there’s always the game of the week.