Like a child breaking down and building back and breaking down and building back an antique before carving their own milestone, 2008 was a year of tinkering before making real progress.
But that’s not to say history wasn’t made…
The most common thing I wrote down in my notebook over the last year was two words attached to too many names to count: new player. So with a hunch I went looking. There was one glaring statistic I thought should be out there. I began compiling the numbers of new players that played in MLS last season… and then I found exactly what I was working on over at Climbing the Ladder, the go-to data shop of American soccer statistics. I should have known to check earlier—it would have saved me some time—but no matter, my suspicion came back confirmed: “the total number of players used this MLS season in all competitive matches was 388, which comes out to an average of 27.7 per team. Never before has it been higher than 26. Pretty high since the roster limit was 28 (and the average used per team in reality is higher since some players played for more than one team).”
Teams Players Avg
1996 10 242 24.2
1997 10 236 23.6
1998 12 283 23.6
1999 12 278 23.2
2000 12 283 23.6
2001 12 271 22.6
2002 10 233 23.3
2003 10 236 23.6
2004 10 232 23.2
2005 12 312 26.0
2006 12 312 26.0
2007 13 338 26.0
2008 14 388 27.7
*data from Climbing the Ladder
No doubt the national team needs to be looking at as many players as possible in order to field the best talent. And in 2008 (and the first camp of 2009) thanks to an early qualification into the World Cup qualifying hexagonal stage, it would be hard to argue that the coaching staff didn’t take its looks. All the players in the world wouldn’t change the always tenuous team dynamics of national team soccer, and given its seating in the World Cup cycle 2008 was a perfect time to scour the playing fields for new blood. Now we will begin to see what Bob Bradley and his coaching staff can shake out of it. In the four-year cycle, the same issues are always there for the national team, but what about when it comes to the club level?
No World Cup cycle. No singular goal. You’re working with this year, this tournament, against forever, not just four years. Every week this past season another name came up from another scouting trip to another country or even just down the road to a USL team. On the surface, the influx of new names has to be a welcome change in a league in need of technique, style, and flair, AND IT IS, but it brings up an underlying worry that I ruminated about all year.
Just what is MLS going to become?
Stability is important in a child’s life–be that life MLS as an entity or a young fan–and though MLS has kept that ethos a priority for nearly every aspect of its growth, rosters are beginning to buck the trend, and fans are being left with fewer heroes to hold on to (of course it would help if the media would tell a a few more stories). Risked in the shuffle of players, under inadequate umbrellas of the mainstream media, is a sense of identity, a sense of team, a sense of belonging.
But say this and you’re swimming against a strong, positive current. The entry of MLS into the wider global soccer marketplace is the big driving force here and comes with such priority that the frequent comings and goings are taken as necessary evils. More than any of year in history MLS moved closer to joining the global fray of talent louring. The league needs to have presence, even if just conscious acknowledgment, abroad. It needs to always be working toward improving its talent pools from locker room assistants to team owners. This is not a movement that will slow anytime soon, and nor should it, but it should be noted that players are increasingly celebrities of their own responsibility and merely itinerant bible salesman for franchises and a league who aren’t exactly sure what they have.
Every team in professional sport loses pieces of their soul to free agency, but with MLS it’s worse. With little to no minor league or farm system (and now with no reserves), teams are forced to go find players elsewhere as they attempt to build out an academy system which for most clubs still exists as a luxury expense without return. So players come and go from workouts and loans. Foreign-born players arrive to market like seasonal produce. A USL player is plucked for a late season go at it. Increasingly in MLS there is no I in team, which (here we are again) can be a great thing, but there is no team without some I’s to market, without personalities to identify with, without a cape or two for young fans to tug upon.
I still don’t see many super heroes.
And I don’t mean superstars, just a solid player to watch grow, a friendly role model to appreciate, become familiar with, even close to, maybe depend on. Maybe even cry over. The idea of bringing a young player up through the system or keeping a budding star around to maybe set some records but at least take fans along for the ride of his career… is still just that: an idea. So bring on the onslaught of trials and errors and see what sticks.
Every other American pro sport (and indeed the bigger soccer clubs in the world) has gone through these growing pains and persevered mostly on their long histories and a consistent pool of players that people recognize, know and care about (be it their demise or success) who can shuffle between teams without much collateral damage. That’s two crutches MLS does not have. It needs to make that history and make that player pool but largely missed the chance–before free agency, before globalization–to build it deep and strong without interruption. And it doesn’t have the NCAA to produce a ready-made mix of personalities. MLS is left to build on a fragile framework with global footings trying to build up to where our pool is closer in depth to the historically top leagues. And you could easily argue they’ve done a fine job. But that doesn’t remove the fact that fans are still forced to throw some blind faith to the sport and their teams, hoping the bucket will hold the increased water until more support arrives, until these quick romances dissolve to give the nation more mature general managers, coaches, scouts, and even players as they begin to form a better understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and what MLS is going to be all about.
Until then we’re grasping at straws.
For the adolescent MLS, It’s acne one day, clear skin the next, and back to grease and shame by the end of the week when you were really hoping to make an impression with the crowd you so desperately want to attract. Will the crush, the click you hoped would accept you see through the topical dirt to appreciate the prospect for growth on the inside… and try, please god try will you, to enjoy the ride? You’ll look back one day and wish you had.
The game, the national team, and MLS, are all coming along. It was a year of tinkering that left a wider trail. We’ll learn a bit more in 2009 as we continue to follow the bushwhacked path. Given the lead up to a World Cup and collective bargaining year, determining which players are right for the unique brand of American soccer should be coming more into focus. And who knows, maybe they’ll stick around for awhile.
a few notes
David Lindner won the free Bumpy Pitch T-shirt in the end of year photo contest, selecting the following photo below and giving some thought to outsiders himself…
My picture isn’t actually from this year; I only discovered it this year, through your DP pals at Original Winger. It’s at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, from 2007’s AC Milan-Liverpool Champions League Final.
This year for American soccer was one for the outsiders. The sport grew from the fringes. More people than ever watched the Champions League final–casual sports fans on my campus skipped class to watch two English teams play in the rain. Euro 2008 had the same effect. ESPN2 broadcasts an Italy friendly on a Wednesday afternoon. MLS and the US National Team don’t have the cache yet, but soccer is expanding its reach here.
We had the Nash-Reyna charity game, and soccer is fashionable. Chad Johnson wears a Liverpool jersey on Sportscenter. The Boston Globe published articles about Kevin Garnett’s burgeoning relationship with Didier Drogba. Wes Welker and Randy Moss juggle soccer balls before Patriots’ practice.
There are signs of life for soccer here. There’s no “MLS will fall apart in two years” anymore. Ives Galarcep gives updates on ESPN and the EPL. The frat boys at Trinity play FIFA now, not Madden or Rock Band. Our familiarity with the global game is higher than ever. So when do we embrace what we already have here? Why don’t Americans know any player outside of Freddy Adu? When can I not be laughed at for watching the Crew play the Red Bulls on an NFL gameday?
If Baron Davis isn’t laughing, maybe other people will follow suit. But Baron also got to see the game played by the best–the Henrys, the Kalous. Maybe there’s an idea that we aren’t seeing the best. Or maybe we just need to work harder to transform “their game” to “our game”. We’re building American soccer in the margins, now it’s time to take it to the mainstream.
honorary mention goes to Alex Arce for submitting the following photo, taken at the US MNT v Argentina game, which for many was the year’s best national team moment.
and finally to start of the year properly, a piece of good news is already here for some New Yorkers. It’s not the MLS stadium some want in Manhattan, but a new field is being built under the elevated Westside Highway along the Hudson River in Upper Manhattan where field space is hard to come by. The field will be paid for in part by the funds raised at the MLS and US Soccer Foundation Gala that benefited FC Harlem (the gala was another good highlight from 2008). The young, exciting youth club will have rights to the field. The early artist rendition from Clough Harbour and Associates shows what’s possible when New Yorkers decide to do something:
to get an idea of what this space looks like, here is a similar location further downtown where I watched MLK high school practice a few years ago. The tiny field in this photo rests next to the elevated highway, not under it as is proposed above.
banner image cropped from a watecolor by Laura Lee Gulledge.