In January, the Designated Player told the stories of two young hopefuls at the MLS combine, Andrew Farrell and Machael David. Having promised to follow the pair through their rookie year, he catches up with Farrell, the no. 1 draft pick, after a turbulent week for the New England Revolution.
“I just lost him on the sideline, and I should have stayed central and kept him wide. But he just came out of nowhere and put it away.”
I’m speaking with Andrew Farrell in a locker room after a match, at the end of one of his toughest weeks since signing with New England Revolution. Right now, he’s reliving the moment when New York’s Thierry Henry lost him en route to the Red Bulls’ third goal in a 4-1 Revolution loss. Understandably, he’s distracted — half talking to me and half to himself.
“It’s just going through my head time and time again.”
The week began with Boston thrown into upheaval by the marathon bombing. As the initial chaos of that event settled into concern for loved ones, the Revs family learned that the father-in-law of veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis had been seriously injured in one of the blasts. On the Friday of that week, I’d spoken with Farrell as the team bus made its way to New York, without Reis. It was apparently a slightly surreal ride down. Just after the team left, the city was put on lockdown as the net tightened round Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and throughout our interview, news and social media updates were relayed to players via the bus Wi-Fi.
As I type this, a rather beautiful silver shield is winging its way from Real Salt Lake to Chivas USA, to the next group of MLS supporters who get to celebrate their part in creating it. The Supporters' Shield is a trophy made by MLS fans to honor the team who tops the regular-season standings, is now in its second physical incarnation. A new fan-funded trophy has taken the place of the original — one that had filled up with more engraved history than its originators perhaps dared hope for.
The original trophy grew out of the legendary North American Soccer Listserv, which predated MLS, though not by much — the '90s boom of the web running pretty much concurrent with the latest version of Division One soccer in North America. That paralleling with Internet history is a crucial characteristic of the social fabric of contemporary U.S. and Canadian soccer support — for better or worse it’s a digital league. The original Listserv featured many voices who would become key players in the first wave of organized MLS supporter culture, as well as figures like Phil Schoen, the current beIN TV announcer, who ended up being an inadvertent driver of what, for the time, was the ambitious form the first shield took.
Be warned, soccer fans: MLS is poised to creep up on you like a wheaten terrier nuzzling its snout against your leg in search of pats. In its 18th season, the league has come of age. If it was human, it could vote and join the military. As it is, in cities like Portland, Kansas City, Toronto, and Philadelphia, the game has become a cacophonous symbol of local pride. Young fans exhilarated by an intoxicating supporter culture living within soccer-specific stadiums have themselves become markers of the surging self-confidence propelling the growth of the game in the United States.
Whether you follow the U.S. men's national team or the English Premier League, it has been hard to ignore this rise in profile. Witness the Azteca-defying heroics of a young defensive tandem, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, alongside the MLS-produced spine of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Brad Guzan. Or the Premier League acquisitions of Kei Kamara, Geoff Cameron, and Brek Shea. This strange, new reality of Premier League scouts taking MLS seriously has encouraged a wave of European football–loving American fans to follow suit.
This cultural moment deserves a guide as those of you living outside MLS’s 19-team footprint are left wondering who to root for. Just because the teams lack the eons of history lived by their European counterparts does not mean they are short of personality. We thrashed out this ready reckoner (in the spirit of our Game of Thrones–to–English Premier League Converter) to serve as your muse. For those craving a bandwagon to jump on or an underdog to cherish, there is something for everyone. Define your rooting interest now, America, and usher in an era in which soccer ceases being your Sport of the Future, as it has been since 1972.
Soccer viewership on English-language stations in the United States is growing. Last week's match between the U.S. and Mexico drew a 1.6 overnight rating and 2.39 million viewers on ESPN, more than double the previous high for a World Cup qualifier on the channel. Fox Soccer Channel may be shutting down, but Champions League broadcasts are a key element to its replacement, Fox Sports 1. NBC paid $250 million for the rights to English Premier League games for three seasons and will televise six live games a week. Executives hope the matches will help grow the presence of NBC Sports Network.
Which brings us to Major League Soccer. In 2011, NBC bought broadcast rights for a fraction of what it paid for the EPL, reportedly $10 million per season. Ratings are improving but are still relatively small. A recent rivalry game between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders had 209,000 viewers on NBCSN and came at the end of a 10-hour blitz of MLS coverage. The fact that NBCSN would air the domestic soccer league for an entire Saturday is undoubtedly progress, even if the ratings are climbing only incrementally. But national figures are one thing; after attending a few New York Red Bulls games and watching a few more on MSG, I wondered how MLS was doing on a local level. Specifically, were more fans watching games in person or on television?
So here’s a typical extract from a conversation with Montreal Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier:
“He was a great footballer ... a doctor ... he smoked too! The way he played too, his penalty shots — he took two steps, always into the top shelf, the corner.”
We’re talking about one of my favorite soccer players — the late, great, larger than life Brazilian, Socrates. It's not an enthusiasm I choose to share with everyone, because he’s emblematic of something that’s personal about my relationship to the game — watching the Brazil team that Socrates graced in the '80s was the first time I trusted my own taste. But I get the sense Bernier gets it, as he has a demonstrable, encyclopedic fan’s enthusiasm for the game, so I start to tell him about the feeling of seeing that Brazil team as a kid.
Bernier is chuckling as I talk to him, and fills in my reaction for me: “You said, “OK! I like this!’ I grew up with the 1970s team — this all starts with my father, because Haitians are very Brazilian orientated ... fanatics ... and that started with Pele’s time, because he traveled a lot and came to Haiti. I saw tapes from that era. Jairzinho, I could tell you a whole story about him. I saw all the goals, all the games, and then '82 and '86, Brazil were probably better than the 1970 team but they never won — the best team that never won.”
Never let it be said that the Designated Player backs down from a fight. Whether it’s demanding that The European cuts a few of the makeweights to bump my salary up to a living (large) wage, or calling out my rookie left back on Twitter (“@genericclogger22 My level = not you #achieve #1998UEFACupQF #respectlearnit #whentopmanfreePASSit”), the D.P. is right there on top of it, giving third-person, off-the-record briefings and generally showing his stomach for the fight. A stomach, natch, that was recently described as “box-to-box” on something called Les Cahiers du Football.
So when I heard that MLS had come up with a Rivalry Week, and that not only that, but a team of 150 NBC staff was going to be producing a mammoth 10-hour, countrywide production devoted to the first day’s play, that really threw down the gauntlet. The Designated Player is worth the equivalent of 177 mortals and a diabetic bulldog, so matching the human resources being thrown at Rivalry Week by the NBC peacock shouldn’t be a problem. Not only that, but I intended to emulate their lead anchors and announcers Russ Thaler, Arlo White, and Kyle Martino by also covering the first game live at Red Bull Arena. Then while they were Cannonball Run–ning their way up to their state-of-the-art studio facility in Connecticut to host their experimental two-and-a-half-hour, four-game MLS Breakaway show, I’d be reclining in my luxury PATH train on the way to my state-of-disarray Brooklyn apartment to doze fitfully through the rest of the day.
I was in an e-mail exchange with the writer Kevin Sampson recently and I happened to mention the name Djimi Traore and his recent move to Seattle Sounders. If it’s possible to beam with pleasure in an e-mail, that’s what I got back, as he described Traore perfectly as an “absolutely shambolic hero.”
Traore has built his career in being remembered somewhat fondly by fans of the teams he has left and enjoyed somewhat nervously by the teams he still plays for. He’s an unpredictable law unto himself and thus a player of far greater magnitude than a dullard like Lionel Messi. Messi is just sublime. Traore is also ridiculous.
“I knew you'd have to get tough or die / And it's the name that helped to make you strong."
Real Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake. As a boy-named-Sue of a name goes, that one must be right up there.
Teams have always borrowed from unlikely sources, especially during the happenstance of travel patterns that gave us the clubs and origin myths of the early professional game. The Juventus black and white stripes borrowed from Notts County, for example, and indeed, just as RSL did, the early '70s Leeds team borrowed from Real Madrid in switching to an all-white kit. But when the Real Salt Lake name was announced for the expansion team that started the 2005 season, it just seemed to hit the anti–sweet spot in its gauche/bathetic nod to Europe (right down to the pronunciation of the name) and the unfortunate sense of plasticity it suggested.
Andy Roxburgh is talking about Bruce Arena. He’s not been at New York Red Bulls long, but it appears the new Sporting Director may have already been asked one too many times about the management model at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and can’t resist a wry little dig at the head coach and general manager of the current MLS champions.
Roxburgh barely pauses on the aside, though, launching straight into a detailed breakdown of the new Red Bulls management structure: “What happens in this case, is this model is based on the French FA. The French FA when Gerard [Houllier, Red Bulls global director of soccer] was there, was the technical director and the CEO, and one didn’t answer to the other. They were in partnership, they linked occasionally, when appropriate. But each one of them was responsible for his own area, and the person who was above them is only one person, who’s the president. Now, it’s the same model here.”
Last week’s news that Robbie Rogers had come out, while also “stepping away” from soccer, was both encouraging and discouraging for the context and reaction it received. Encouraging, in that Rogers’s announcement was met with overwhelming support, and that this was a young athlete in the prime of his career making the decision to come out. The discouraging aspect was that the coming-out was allied to the “stepping away” — with many of those supportive of Rogers’s decision sad that he didn’t see a way forward playing the game.
For his part Rogers doesn’t owe anyone anything, and as a young man who’d made his way in the modest financial climate of MLS, he’s hardly alone in having to think about life beyond the game sooner than other professional athletes. So it’s possibly a little more complex than a homophobic culture forcing him out of the game despite its lucrative lure — though god knows, when thinking about comparably paid careers in the wake of announcing one’s sexuality, it’s understandable to choose one where that decision was not considered fair game for on-field and off-field trash-talking.
Funny things, soccer dynasties. This week alone we were treated to another installment of Arsene Wenger’s gradual transformation into King Lear (though at least he’ll be warm on the heath in his nice big coat, and can claim legitimately not to have seen most incidents). And in MLS, the marvelous Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is hitting drop-the-mic status early in the race for the Entertaining Coach of the Year Award, with his energetic trading of anyone on the Chivas USA side who can’t show lineage back to the Olmec. Which is one way to do it.
MLS has always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of dynasties. On the one hand the culture and practices of forced parity seem designed to curb such excesses, yet on the other there’s a continual prompting toward the type of sustained marketing and competitive successes that come from, well, dynasties. It’s a little reminiscent of the 1980s Chinese version of “permissible small-scale capitalism” — one that’s allowed to thrive at arm’s length from state intervention, but never further.
“(The American) is always in the mood to move on ... He is devoured with a passion for movement, he cannot stay in one place; he must go and come, he must stretch his limbs and keep his muscles in play. When his feet are not in motion, his fingers must be in action ... He always has to have something to do, he is always in a terrible hurry. He is fit for all sorts of work except those which require a careful slowness. Those fill him with horror; it is his idea of hell.”
—Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, 1839
“Sorry, but Thierry has to go now.”
Henry springs to his feet laughing as the press officer intervenes.
“Wow. I’ve got to come here more often.”
The small group sitting at a table in a Red Bull Arena executive box have asked maybe three questions of a player who usually has to endure more. This is MLS media day — a day when key players from every MLS team are brought to New York to film preseason spots with the league, sponsors, and TV partners, and somewhere among all this, find themselves ushered through a door to meet a few members of the local and national press in quick roundtable conversations. Henry, understandably, is in demand and now he bounces to his feet and bounds cheerfully out of the room, pursued by a team carrying clipboards. Those of us left in the box reset our recorders as Chris Wondolowski edges politely in to take his place.
“Welcome to the family. We’re happy to have you. Stay humble, but stay hungry.”
Making his way off the stage he’s just shared with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Andrew Farrell nods earnestly at the short greeting by his new head coach, Jay Heaps, and looks down at the New England Revolution scarf now draped round his neck. At the other side of the hall, at the ESPN broadcast desk, analysts Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman are now praising the no. 1 pick in the 2013 SuperDraft — Lalas is noting the young man’s confidence playing the ball out of defense, while Twellman, a former no. 2 overall draft pick for the Revs, and club hero, is praising second-year coach Heaps, for exciting a beleaguered fan base by trading to secure the top player on the board.
Farrell is just relieved that the process is over. With Toronto initially holding the first pick and Farrell’s star rising at the Combine, it had been widely expected he would be headed to Canada, until New England made the draft-day move for its first-ever top pick — a bold gesture of faith in a young player who elicits stock phrases such as “significant upside” but who is, like all his peers, untested at the professional level. “I tried to stay away from all the mock drafts and blogs and all that," says Farrell. "Until they call your name, you’re never certain. I heard one or two things from my agent that there’s been a a trade, and I’d spoken to New England and liked them. A lot of the teams I’d spoken to said nice things, but were, like, ‘We’re too low of a pick to get you’, but they (New England) didn’t really hint at anything like a trade from fourth to first.”
Not for the first or last time in his life, Machael David was approaching a fork in the road. Seventeen years old and carrying a UK passport bearing someone else’s picture, the young Nigerian found himself confronted by two lines in the JFK Airport immigration hall. Tired and hungry (he hadn’t known the food on the trans-Atlantic flight was free), and speaking only rudimentary English, the young man now faced a moment of uncertainty as to which line to join and, looking for a sign, slowed to a halt. Irritated by the sudden blockage, a family group pushed impatiently past him and headed for the shorter “U.S. Citizens” line. David smiled and followed them gratefully, thinking: “This must be where the black people go ... ”
Seven years later, I’m standing with Machael David beside a soccer field in Florida, and he’s telling me, “I’m glad that I was caught. It enabled me to go through everything that has happened since.” The route from a harsh fluorescent-lit interview room at JFK to speaking with reporters at the MLS Combine has not been a straightforward one, but then neither was the path that brought him to America in the first place. For David, it has become the norm for the lucky breaks in his life to first appear as crushing disappointments.
It’s perhaps why he’s so upbeat and positive when we talk, despite what has been a disappointing Combine for him on the field. When we first speak, he’s just come off the field after his final trial game, playing in his favored holding midfield role, after he had been positioned in an unfamiliar right-back role for his previous games. His performance has been tidy (David’s favorite player is Claude Makelele, that most reliable of cogs in flashy teams’ engine rooms), but despite his constant talking and organizing, and vividly colored boots, it possibly hasn’t been as eye-catching as it needs to be for a game played in audition mode. At every turn, David chose the neat pass, the simple interception, the teammate in space. For all his wider spiritual belief, founded in personal experience and his Christian faith, that the right opportunities in life will reveal themselves, part of me finds myself wishing that just for today he’d been more selfish in forcing the issue and grabbing the coaches’ attentions on the field.
“It was tough out there on the wing — that side of the field is really hard. I think they use it for cricket ... ”
I’m talking to a young hopeful at the MLS Combine, the selection trials for the SuperDraft, after he has dragged himself off the field to talk to the few reporters gathered here at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium. I look out in the general area of where he is pointing, and see that there is indeed a dry, hard square of dirt at the far side of the field, large enough to accommodate a particularly unforgiving wicket, if not being quite so accommodating to a sprinting soccer player’s cleats. The player looks irritated — the state of the field out there has compounded his frustration at being played on the wing instead of his normal forward position, and he feels he hasn’t done himself justice on the biggest stage of his footballing life so far. As he slopes off to the locker room, he gives another last grimace at the dusty patch of ground. It’s doubtful that he’ll be consoled when he returns for his next game two days later to find the dirt has been painted green. Welcome to the lowest rung of MLS.