Growing the Sport in the United States

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Post by RedOranje Fri Mar 08, 2013 11:14 pm

Posted by Roger Bennett


Alexi Lalas' Twitter feed is a curious place. It's less a social stream and more a Star Wars cantina of ideas where the emotional and the rational, the laid-back and the provocative coexist. Mingling among apologies for deteriorating personal hygiene -- "Fair warning: I run among you but I haven't showered. Make way or suffer the horror of my wake." -- are the occasional moments of clarity, like when he tweeted the following a few weeks ago:

Last night this was discussed: If you live in the U.S., can you call yourself a "soccer fan" even if you don't support @MLS?

According to Lalas, the tweet was the result of a late-night bar conversation. "That's where most of my tweets and ideas come from," he said. "I was talking about soccer in America with the ESPN production crew, about ratings and soccer snobs and Euro snobs and internal types of perception and reality problems. With a theatrical flourish, producer Chris Alexopoulos threw it out there that you can't call yourself an American soccer fan if you don't follow MLS."

By now, Lalas is familiar with the signs that he has hit a nerve on Twitter. "People yell all kinds of names at me," he said. "Some I understand, some I don't."

But once he posted the above statement the following morning, he was instantly exposed to an avalanche of heartfelt arguments from "Euro snobs" obsessed with the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga, as well as MLS stalwarts.

"Some people were insulted that I could possibly doubt their standing as soccer fans just because they did not follow MLS," Lalas said. "Others heartfeltly agreed there is a patriotic responsibility to be an ambassador because MLS needs you."

Both the deluge of responses and their emotional depth may be attributed to the fact that this debate occurred at a transitional time in modern supporter culture. Traditionally, fandom was all about rooting for the local team but this simple reality has been obliterated in football's hyper-commercial modern era. As the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United battle to become global brands, that sense of place has been consciously uprooted, something I glimpsed last year while meeting with Liverpool's marketing strategists. They talked about plans to erase the stigma surrounding so-called "plastic fans" by enabling supporters in Jakarta to feel as close to the club as Liverpudlians, developing "subscriber content" in every language that could be paid for in any currency.

Pitched against that backdrop, Lalas' question bears revisiting, all the more during a week in which MLS has kicked off its 18th season. The North American league has become a robust presence. Yet even as its quality progresses -- evidenced by the small symbols of Sporting Kansas City loanee Kei Kamara's game-changing cameo against Everton, or Brek Shea's ability to find his feet at Stoke -- commissioner Don Garber remained defensive in his season-opening "state of the league" address, as he rued that "Respect for Major League Soccer is greater abroad than it is among the soccer community in the United States."

I asked Lalas if his position on the issue is really about the mechanics of fandom or if it's more to do with American patriotism, and he momentarily sounded like a "Think Globally-Act Locally" bumper sticker.

"Hypocrisy is a constant thread through many American soccer fans' attitudes," he said. "I can't make people follow MLS but I can point out their hypocrisy. If they do want to call themselves American soccer fans and support the national team, I hope that part of them wants the sport to succeed in the United States, and for that to happen, they have to be part of solution by supporting local soccer."

Lalas is all too aware of what he refers to as "the allure of the shiny."

"MLS's biggest challenge right now is the compare and contrast with European soccer and what people feel when watching an MLS game," he admitted. "I hope they can appreciate that what is offered in the U.S. is as good and in certain cases better than what we define as elite around the world."

For Lalas, the league's unique selling proposition is clear.

"MLS is the most competitive league in the world -- not the biggest or always the best quality -- but Chelsea know they will win 70 percent of their games because they have the best players. That kind of superclub dominance does not live in MLS, which makes it a purer form of the game over here."

BeIN sports commentator Phil Schoen, best known as the calming Danny Glover to Ray Hudson's "Lethal Weapon"-era Mel Gibson when Barcelona play, is well attuned to the Euro snob perspective from broadcasting Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1. "Many American fans take a holier-than-thou approach and believe if they are not watching Manchester United, Real Madrid, Boca Juniors or Guadalajara, then they are lowering themselves," he said.

Schoen grew up around South Florida in what he refers to as "Dolphins and Hurricanes territory," yet when the Fort Lauderdale Strikers came to the area in the 1970s, he fell in love with soccer.

"The experience was hard to describe," he said. "The bond between the fans and the team, and our hatred of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Cosmos felt so real, all of which teaches me soccer can thrive across America because I saw it happen."

In Schoen's mind, MLS has made real progress over the course of its 18 seasons, though the broadcaster expresses concern that the league lacks narrative, heroes and personality. "When it started out, there was more room for the players to express themselves, but the league has adopted a conservative approach in which individualism appears to have been suppressed. Where are the Carlos Valderramas and Marco Etcheverrys of today?" he asked. "Any league needs characters -- villains as well as good guys."

In addition to personality, Schoen believes that entertaining football requires passion and style. "MLS seems to be standing still in terms of quality," he said. "A lack of depth means there has been a homogenization of style that favors grit and determination. Real success requires the artistic over the artisan."

The glut of broadcasters beaming every major global league directly into American homes also gives Schoen reason to fret about the fiercely competitive nature of the landscape. "Our nation is awash in football," he said. "If you fold in the ethnic outlets and Spanish-language coverage, there are over 80 channels broadcasting soccer on a regular basis. No country in the world carries more soccer."

That concern is exacerbated by the size of MLS's 19-team footprint. "The Premier League is a marketing machine," Schoen said. "Americans will tune in just to watch Wigan play Stoke. EPL fans are crossing over to La Liga with its star power, and now the German Bundesliga is crescendoing for sophisticates, while more will watch once Pep Guardiola joins the league. MLS only has 19 teams. Is that sufficient to carry a nation? You have to ask, does it give people in Detroit enough of a reason to care?"

Despite this, Schoen believes that the number of American Euro snobs will shrink in the medium term. "If MLS can pull in some big names to replace Beckham -- the Frank Lampards and Ronaldinhos that can gain media attention, Barnum and Bailey-style -- and follow the Bundesliga strategy of investing heavily in serious youth development where the players study algebra in the morning, then free kicks in the afternoon, I believe the league can foster the creativity it needs to become accepted as a true element on the soccer map."

He paused for a beat, then joked, "I hope so, if only to ensure we are not still having this debate 100 years from now."

Sounding less optimistic, Lalas doubts the issue will disappear, no matter how fast MLS progresses. "I have called out American soccer fans in the past because I believe we face many obstacles on the outside before we can truly grow the game, but there are also things we need to fix on the inside. So I refuse to back down."

He does, however, appreciate the size of the task that lies ahead of him. "This issue always reminds me that Bonnie Raitt spoke the truth when she sang 'I can't make your heart feel something it won't.'"

http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/relegationzone/id/728?cc=5901



Thoughts?  I actually think Lalas and ESPN have a point here, shocking as that sounds.  MLS has lofty ambitions and has shown dramatic growth since it's founding but it can only continue to grow with the support of footy fans within the US.  Certainly ESPN could also do more to help recognition of the league grow with better coverage of both matches and highlights as well, though.


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Post by Lex Fri Mar 08, 2013 11:29 pm

Ray Hudson as Mel Gibson rofl
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Post by Doc Fri Mar 08, 2013 11:31 pm

Not a US citizen but Lalas has some point I reckon. Yes, if you support US soccer, you ought to actually watch MLS and or go MLS matches. However, ESPN doesn't actually show that many MLS matches or really promote it to the extent they do other sporting programs.

Maybe it's because MLS isn't that lucrative as a product or ESPN priorities aren't that interested. I honestly don't know so I'll leave that to men who actually have a better understanding.
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Post by Swanhends Fri Mar 08, 2013 11:42 pm

Its up to MLS to make themselves an attractive product that people want to watch, I think. People shouldn't force themselves to watch MLS if they don't enjoy it, thats asinine...

I don't know though...I think im split on the issue
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Post by RedOranje Fri Mar 08, 2013 11:47 pm

If people are unwilling to give MLS a chance initially or help the League support though, how much can it do itself? Money is needed for any growth and money comes from people watching and attending matches. As I previously mentioned, the sports media could do more to bring the League to the masses and to help chance to perception of the sport within the mainstream populace but people must still be willing to give MLS consideration from the go, which is something many are unwilling to do. And what of the people who love to talk about how the US team will only get better as the players get better? Surely supporting MLS is the best way to achieve that growth? How can someone claim to support the national team if they're unwilling to support it's foundations (which MLS certainly is/should & will be)?
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Post by VanDeezNuts Sat Mar 09, 2013 12:00 am

i disagree, personally. this type of situation isnt specific to the US, it happens in a lot of different leagues. coming from dutch heritage my dad and his brother watch a lot of eredivisie matches. i watch the occasional ajax match, basically if they play one of twente or psv (i dont have time to watch others because i watch the big leagues instead), but when it comes to the national team i know a lot more and probably watch a lot more friendlies and such than my dad and uncle.

so whos the bigger national team fan- those who follow the league more closely or those who follow the actual national team more closely?

my view is if the league is entertaining enough, people will watch it. if its not entertaining to me im not going to watch it just to spite myself if there are better matches on, nor do i think turning on all my tv's to tune into the eredivisie will better my national team.

i am also not seeing the direct correlation between league and national team. does the us national team make money from mls revenue?

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Post by Swanhends Sat Mar 09, 2013 12:09 am

What can we do? Tell them: "You have to watch MLS cause 'Merica" ?

I dunno what the solution is...Do I wish more people would at the very least give MLS a shot? Absolutely

But am I gonna be that douche that says: "You can't call yourself a U.S Soccer fan if you don't support MLS!!" ? No, because that doesn't accomplish anything other than feeding your own inflated sense of self-superiority...No one is gonna hear that and say "Oh okay, I'm gonna start watching MLS now to gain this persons approval!"


Do I wish things were different? Of course. But regardless of what side of the debate you're on, at the end of the day getting bogged down arguing about meaningless labels isn't constructive for either group - at least thats my view of it

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Post by TalkingReckless Sat Mar 09, 2013 12:16 am

I am not a US soccer fan but i was a MLS fan, in my first year at uni, i used to go watch NYRB all the time, but since then i have only gone once or twice , not because the football isn't good, i enjoy watching at times but i can't keep up with the constant transfers.
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Post by RedOranje Sat Mar 09, 2013 12:38 am

Drawing comparisons with the Dutch is a fallacious juxtaposition. Both the Dutch league and the national team are established in what they are and have spent time as some of the best in the world. On the other hand, both the US national team and MLS are growing entities. People claim that in order for the US national team to become better it must have better player development, but then refuse to support the system that develops US players...


@ bhends: No one has talked about "forcing" anyone to do anything, except in off-hand mentions ruling it out. Nor am I suggesting you need to begin ranting or haranguing fellow fans... but then believing one thing and proselytizing are two different things that you seem to be attempting to combine into one.
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Post by barca 2011 Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:00 am

I guess it depends what u mean by "us soccer". Are you a just a fan of the NT? Many Americans are "soccer" fans but follow the Euro leagues for obvious reasons. That's one reason why I wish MLS was bigger and of a higher quality but the fact is, many of us yanks love football but follow foreign leagues. We can only wish that one day MLS will be elite.
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Post by Swanhends Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:08 am

RedOranje wrote:@ bhends: No one has talked about "forcing" anyone to do anything, except in off-hand mentions ruling it out. Nor am I suggesting you need to begin ranting or haranguing fellow fans... but then believing one thing and proselytizing are two different things that you seem to be attempting to combine into one.

Hyperbole to illustrate both points.

No one is talking about forcing anyone to do anything...its just that if you don't do it, you can't call yourself a U.S Soccer fan Rolling Eyes... Obviously no one is being forced in the strict sense of the word, but the implication that you cannot consider yourself X unless you do Y is an obvious attempt to pressure people who want to be X, into doing Y.

Re: Ranting and Haranguing

Again, obviously no one is running around crowded bars yelling that anyone who doesn't support MLS can't call themselves a U.S fan - but Lalas himself said that the idea to pose this question started from a conversation in a bar...Well how do those start?

USMNT game on TV:
Person A - You're a fan? What team do you support?
Person B - Oh I support FC Taliban
Person A - No I mean in MLS
Person B - Ahh I don't watch MLS, not really my thing
Person A - Come on man, how are you gonna call yourself a U.S fan when you don't watch MLS?

The whole reason this is even a subject of debate is because there ARE people out there who proselytize about this.

Disclaimer 1: The previous conversation was not a historical event, but rather a purely hypothetical example of my own creation meant to simulate a possible real-life conversation.
Disclaimer 2: FC Taliban is not a real football club.


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Post by Mr. Moratti Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:11 am

[Stop trolling, brah] - McLewis
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Post by VanDeezNuts Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:29 am

fallacious juxtaposition? its only fallacious if you believe that the US national team can grow by people watching the MLS and the Dutch national team cannot grow by people watching the eredivisie. as if the MLS is the only growing league in the world.

why are you making it seem as if the MLS/US national team is a situation that cannot be generalized to other leagues?

anyways its beside the point really because what it really comes down to is Lalas is accusing US soccer fans of not being real fans if they dont support the MLS. I think this accomplishes nothing and actually discourages fandom. No one is going to be moved to watch more MLS because they think they wont be considered US soccer fans.

the whole argument is a bit superficial imo.

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Post by BarrileteCosmico Sat Mar 09, 2013 2:16 am

"Some people were insulted that I could possibly doubt their standing as soccer fans just because they did not follow MLS," Lalas said. "Others heartfeltly agreed there is a patriotic responsibility to be an ambassador because MLS needs you."
So the argument is that since you're american you have to support mls? That seems very hollow. It's safe to assume this person also thinks americans should only purchase american cars...
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Post by VendettaRed07 Sat Mar 09, 2013 2:50 am

It comes back to the whole argument "should you buy american if you live in america to support your home country even if the foreign competition is doing it better that we hear all the time when it comes to things like cars, clothing, and just about every other product you can think of. I don't really think people should just be forced to like something that is overall, an inferior product, than what is produced overseas just because they live in the US.

The MLS should be motivated to be better and keep building to where all football fans in america can't help BUT support it...

I think the MLS is fun to watch and I do support it but I don't quite take it all that seriously yet.

I don't really like the summer schedule, or the schedule in general, that there is only 19 teams right now, too many teams play on NFL fields and on terf, terrible pitch conditions. The playoff structure could use work. Having a cap is one thing, one similar to the NBA imo should be enforced as those generally do help competition between teams in the leage.. but theres a lot of strange restrictions on teams outside of that as well in terms of how they can acquire players.

Also stadiums are incredibly out of the way and either in inconvenient spots, or not in the area that they say they are in. Red Bulls not in New York, Galaxy not in LA, FC Dallas not in Dallas.. And so on. The league MUST do a better job making it easier for people to get to stadiums and put them in areas where they can easily promote the teams. Because as it is now I think in america there is too much competition with stadiums in sports like Baseball, Basketball, Hockey and the NFL all with beautiful stadiums all in major, highly populated citys and for the most part are not out of the way. I mean I think its a major problem that the MLS doesn't have 1 team actually located in the countries two biggest sports markets.

I realize there is a reason for a lot of the things that hold the league back right now, But I'm not really crazy about the mls just yet. Its growing and its getting there year by year and hopefully soon Ill find myself going to games and watching matches on a regular basis. But a lot should change before it really becomes a competitive league.
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Post by FennecFox7 Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:36 am

VendettaRed07 wrote:FC Dallas not in Dallas..

where did you get that from scratch

Of course FC dallas's stadium is not going to be in downtown dallas.

Frisco is part of dallas just like any surrounding county

Trust me, I live in mckinney, I would know

I think people should give the mls a chance. It's not that bad, but the players are not the most technically gifted out there, so be prepared for hoofballing.
The MLS had more average attendance then the NBA last season, so keep that in mind.
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Post by Swanhends Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:41 am

To be fair, they do not have a very prestigious car show every 4 years where all U.S car companies come together to try and create one super-car that is greater even than the sum of its parts, in order to compete in the single biggest spectacle on earth

No but in all seriousness I don't buy the car analogy at all; Claiming that any multinational corporation is a representation of a single country is a little naive of the modern world, I think - Toyota having factories in Alabama but Ford making a lot of their cars in Mexico etc

Loyalty to a brand to which you are nothing but customer #1405982 for no discernible reason other than the fact that their corporate headquarters happens to be located in your country is not comparable to a selected group of fellow Americans specifically representing the country directly under the country's flag in the worlds largest event


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Post by FennecFox7 Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:43 am

I think the MLS needs more fans in general.. the problem is, there is a stereotype that america sucks ass at football that turns off potential fans to our domestic league. While this may have been true before, I can assure you its not now. Give america 10 years and I GUARANTEE you we will have a world class team. There are unbelievable young talents way younger then me right now that make me look like a pub player (again, I would know lol)
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Post by VendettaRed07 Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:46 am

Giggity5313 wrote:
VendettaRed07 wrote:FC Dallas not in Dallas..

where did you get that from scratch

Of course FC dallas's stadium is not going to be in downtown dallas.

Frisco is part of dallas just like any surrounding county

Trust me, I live in mckinney, I would know

Woops, I didn't know it was in frisco. I heard it was a bit farther out than that. I should have looked it up before mentioning them specifically. But still I think its a bit weird how many MLS teams are just not in good areas or ones that are as easily accessible as some other stadiums, I think its a problem for the sport. The red bulls for example spent a lot of money on their stadium, but they have difficulty filling it because of poor location, and most attending are from New Jersey.
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Post by FennecFox7 Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:48 am

I see your point lol.
FC dallas has alot of potential to have even more fans, its near a bunch of places that attract alot of people in general (stone briar mall, ikea (lol), cinemark, etc etc)
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Post by VendettaRed07 Sat Mar 09, 2013 3:55 am

Swanhends wrote:To be fair, they do not have a very prestigious car show every 4 years where all U.S car companies come together to try and create one super-car that is greater even than the sum of its parts, in order to compete in the single biggest spectacle on earth

No but in all seriousness I don't buy the car analogy at all; Claiming that any multinational corporation is a representation of a single country is a little naive of the modern world, I think - Toyota having factories in Alabama but Ford making a lot of their cars in Mexico etc

Loyalty to a brand to which you are nothing but customer #1405982 for no discernible reason other than the fact that their corporate headquarters happens to be located in your country is not comparable to a selected group of fellow Americans specifically representing the country directly under the country's flag in the worlds largest event
I know the analogy was a bit half baked but the point I was really trying to make was just that American's really shouldn't have to support the MLS just to be a real fan of the sport in general. I know that supporting it now will eventually help it grow in America. But forcing fans to spend money and time on a league that doesn't appeal to them is a but much to ask just because it might lead to a semi final run in 10 years time at the WC. I just think the MLS needs to do a better job of making the league more competitive not just with other football leagues in the world, but all the other sports leagues in the country so Americans will want to support it.
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Post by Swanhends Sat Mar 09, 2013 4:02 am

VendettaRed07 wrote:
Giggity5313 wrote:
VendettaRed07 wrote:FC Dallas not in Dallas..

where did you get that from scratch

Of course FC dallas's stadium is not going to be in downtown dallas.

Frisco is part of dallas just like any surrounding county

Trust me, I live in mckinney, I would know

Woops, I didn't know it was in frisco. I heard it was a bit farther out than that. I should have looked it up before mentioning them specifically. But still I think its a bit weird how many MLS teams are just not in good areas or ones that are as easily accessible as some other stadiums, I think its a problem for the sport. The red bulls for example spent a lot of money on their stadium, but they have difficulty filling it because of poor location, and most attending are from New Jersey.

I think you may have a point there, this definitely is a theme with a lot of teams

I don't know this for a fact, but IIRC this was the case with the Union and I wouldnt be surprised if it was the same in many places around the league:

The price of real estate in the area of the pre-existing stadium complex in Philly has been climbing significantly as developers have started to build around the stadiums - In Philly our sports complex is on the South border of the city, and it used to be all like trucking companies/meat-packing plants/industrial buildings and that shit, but back in the early 00s developers to turn a lot of that stuff into restaurants, bars and entertainment complexes, and the rest into parking lots - so they started buying some properties and driving up the price of the rest

So it got too expensive to try to buy up the land necessary for another stadium, and combine that with problems like needing more parking and the fact that Philadelphia did not really want to subsidize the building of yet another stadium in the city which would require taxpayer money, so the Union decided to look for another location;

They found Chester, which is an old run-down industrial town that is a ghetto shithole like you would not believe (Coincidentally, only 15 minutes from my hometown/parents house, which is nothing like the ghetto) but, they had some things going in their favor:

1) A local government desperate to bring in jobs, money, businesses, and economic development (and more willing to fit some of the bill for building stadium)

2) Chester got an official designation from the state as a location in dire need of economic help, so the State was also willing to pick up part of the bill for the building of the stadium and facilitated things so that the whole thing went smoothly (Rendell the Governor of PA at this time used to be Mayor of Philadelphia) So Chester had plenty of Government backing as a location

3) Location...the lot for PPL Park was on the river, under the bridge, and they just added a brand new off-ramp to make it easier to people to get to-and-from the stadium from new jersey, and it is almost smack in the middle of I-95, I-476, and Route 322

Things like those three items are sometimes hard to find in places that are already heavily developed

Anyway that was way more than I intended to write but yeah
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Post by iftikhar Sat Mar 09, 2013 6:31 am

I have no idea (let's be frank) about US social dynamics or MLS. But do you suppose there are cases where a guy turns-up for his kids football match then tunes-in to EPL, Liga, SerieA but skips MLS!!!

Clubs like Liverpool, Roma, Barcelona thrives on local (city or region) support and attract global following with their history, legends, success, rivalry etc.

Can MLS has any thing like a Liverpool-MU/Everton derby! Do they have a Kenny or an Istambul! It's 18 years since it started.

US is a (super)multi-cultural society and people may have taken EPL, Liga etc. With them (when they migrated), so MLS has to offer similar things to compete.

Again, I know nothing about US society or MLS.
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Post by McLewis Sat Mar 09, 2013 12:49 pm

iftikhar wrote:

Can MLS has any thing like a Liverpool-MU/Everton derby! Do they have a Kenny or an Istambul! It's 18 years since it started.


In terms of derbies, MLS is beginning to develop quite a few: DC-NYRB, NYRB-Philly, Seattle-Portland, Toronto-Montreal, Seattle-Vancouver, Vancouver-Portland, LA-Chivas, LA-SJ, Houston-Dallas, Chicago-KC, Chicago-Colombus, NYRB-NE etc etc....plenty of rivalries on display. Do they have the history of the Merseyside derby? Obviously not, but give it time.

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Post by McLewis Sat Mar 09, 2013 1:02 pm

As for my opinion on this, I think it's a game of patience. As a fan of the sport first and foremost, I'm just happy to see more Americans taking an interest in it beyond watching their kids play it.

It's all about baby steps in terms of getting more people interested. Watch a Portland or Seattle home game. Watch a Sporting KC or Philly Union home game while you're at it as well. The atmosphere at these venues has been fantastic. As someone now used to watching MLS being played in football stadiums in front of fans who could hardly be heard, this is absolute progress in the truest sense.

Soccer is here to stay in the US. It's integrated and assimilated itself into our culture and society so it will likely never go away and that only development or stagnation. For decades, it was the latter of the 2, but finally we're seeing more of the former now and that can only be a great thing for US soccer.

As for Lalas' comments, I don't think it's as black and white as its made out to be. I can't speak for anyone else, but the way I began as a fan of this sport was by watching the European leagues first. Then after watching that stuff for years, I began to wonder...."What kind of league does America have to offer?". That's when I began following Chicago and MLS in general. Is the quality on par with Europe? Nope, but then again, why should we expect that from a league that isn't even 20 years old yet? It's unrealistic.

However, that's ultimately what I think will change in the coming years. Instead of watching Europe first and then coming back home to 'Murica, as MLS gets bigger and better in quality, we'll see the inverse of that. When that happens, we'll see way less of this type of talk in bars that Lalas' spoke of.

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