What's my relationship status with MLS? It's complicated. I’d like to tell you that ever since I became a supporter of the league, when it kicked off in 1996, I’ve remained loyal to it. But I haven’t. And many American soccer fans probably have a similar story. For me, it’s been hard to stay devoted to the league when you (a) don’t have a hometown team to support (I’m from Michigan), and (b) know that a better on-the-field product exists in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.
But my feelings for MLS began to change last year when I moved to Los Angeles, where there are not one but two clubs to follow: the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA. While keeping up with the flashy and successful Galaxy and the rather feckless Goats, my love for the league has been rekindled.
Now, all meaningful relationships will have their day of reckoning. And I believe that for conflicted MLS fan like me, it has arrived: the L.A. Galaxy will play the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup this Saturday, and the match holds such potential for greatness, and whether you're an MLS monogamist or just keeping it casual, I believe we all must witness it. Here’s why:
Sunday night, the L.A. Galaxy gathered in the cold rain on a stage on Century Link Field, amid a chorus of boos from the remaining Seattle Sounders fans, waiting to receive the trophy as the MLS Western Conference champions. They had just beaten the Sounders 4-2 in aggregate goals in a two-game series and earned a spot in the MLS Cup, where they will be playing to defend their 2011 championship. The team’s captain for the night, Robbie Keane, waited atop the podium to receive the trophy from MLS executive vice president of competition Nelson Rodriguez. Beside Keane was the team’s usual captain, Landon Donovan, who missed the game with a hamstring injury. Next to Donovan stood the man who built this Galaxy team, the club’s general manager and head coach, the most successful coach in American soccer: Bruce Arena.
On Wednesday, MLS announced that the San Jose Earthquakes — who have the best record in the league (57 points) and the league’s leading goal scorer (Chris Wondolowski, 20 goals) — had won the rights to Marcus Tracy in a lottery. Tracy, a forward, won the 2008 Herman Award (soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman) in his senior year at Wake Forest. The season before, he scored the game-tying goal and assisted on the game-winner in Wake Forest’s 2-1 victory over Ohio State in the 2007 national championship game, the first NCAA championship in the school’s history.
But Tracy, 25, has struggled with injuries for the past three years, and since last October, he hadn’t had a professional contract. Until the Earthquakes came calling.
On Friday, transfer deadline day in European soccer, Clint Dempsey did what he’s done his entire career when facing a challenge: He succeeded. Heading into the day, Dempsey essentially didn’t have a team to play for. He was coming off a career year, probably the best ever by an American in Europe: 23 goals for his club, Fulham, 17 in the English Premier League, fourth in the league behind international superstars such as Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. But when the 2012-13 Premier League season started a few weeks ago, he wasn’t playing for Fulham. His manager, Martin Jol, said he refused to play. Dempsey tweeted that there were two sides to the story.
We may never know exactly what was communicated between Dempsey and Fulham brass and why he didn’t play for the Cottagers in the first three matches of the season. What we do know is this: After last season, Dempsey, always seeking the best competition, voiced his desire to play for an elite English club, one capable of playing in the Champions League. Liverpool, while not in the Champions League this season (or last season), is one of the most successful clubs in the history of European club competition. The Reds expressed interest in Dempsey, publicly and privately, and all summer long, Liverpool fans have awaited the news that the club had finally signed the American.
Before Wednesday’s friendly between the U.S. and Mexico in Mexico City, there was talk. Lots of talk. Of the United States’ 0-1-23 all-time record in Mexico. Of the Estadio Azteca, the buzzing cauldron where the crowds of 100,000-plus El Tri fans usually taunt American players and shower them with liquids, varying in form from alcoholic to human. But the loudest talk was of Mexico’s recent achievements and the United States’ recent failings. The U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympics, while, four days before Wednesday’s match, Mexico won Olympic gold, beating Brazil in the final. Add their Olympic triumph to their U-17 World Cup victory and the question needed to be asked: Is there a gap in quality and talent and player development between Mexico and the U.S.?
Yes, there was a lot of talk. But there was also a match to be played.
In January 1992, when I was 11 years old, I piled into my travel soccer coach’s conversion van with a bunch of teammates and set out from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to watch the U.S. National Team play the Commonwealth of Independent States (better known as the former Soviet Union) at the Pontiac Silverdome. I’ll be honest: I don’t recall many specifics of the game (though I recommend you watch the highlights) — who won or lost, who played for the U.S. What I do remember is this: My intense desire to be there. That’s the way things were back then, before the ’94 World Cup brought the world’s game to the United States, before the MLS: If you were a soccer fan in the United States, you did everything you could to see a professional game in person.
At a pregame press conference on Monday afternoon at the Home Depot Center, Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham Hotspur’s new manager, stepped onto the stage with an air of authority and control. Tension filled the room. Reporters, who only moments before had been joking about the sarcastic questions they might ask the manager, fell silent. AVB settled into his seat behind the microphone, leaned forward, and with his steel-blue eyes scanned the crowd of reporters.
With 20 minutes left in Wednesday night’s game at Vancouver and the Galaxy down 2-0, L.A. coach Bruce Arena decided to put in Jose Villarreal. It would only be Villarreal’s second professional appearance. The 18-year-old, one of L.A.’s two "Homegrown" players, hails from Inglewood — that’s right Inglewood — and MLS actually allowed the Galaxy to bend some of the rules around signing Homegrown players so they could protect him from getting bought by a European club.
In the fifth round of the 2001 MLS Super Draft, the San Jose Earthquakes drafted Corey Woolfolk, a senior forward from Stanford University, a two-year captain who had led the team to the national championship game his sophomore year and finished his career at Stanford ranked top 10, all time, in all scoring categories. Woolfolk wasn’t expecting to get drafted. He hadn’t even been invited to the MLS combine. As he said, his “eyes were set on Europe,” where he wanted to play professionally. Being a fifth-round draft pick, his expectations weren’t lofty: His goal was to make the Earthquakes’ decision to cut him or keep him a hard one.
He succeeded in that mission. In the preseason, he played in seven of San Jose’s nine games and finished as the team’s leading scorer. Woolfolk played that preseason as an unprotected player; MLS players sign contracts with the league, and the league assigns them to teams. He didn’t have a contract. Woolfolk didn’t even earn a paycheck.
Roster deadline day approached. Woolfolk’s agent told him he had a good chance of making the team. And he did. San Jose offered Woolfolk a contract. He signed it the night he got it.
The next morning, the Earthquakes' coach, Frank Yallop, called him into his office. Woolfolk remembers the conversation: “We’re going to have to let you go,” Yallop told him him. Woolfolk asked him why. “It’s not what you’ve done,” Yallop said. “You’ve made our job very difficult. But there’s this player from Germany ...”
In the second in a series of posts on the future of soccer, Andrew Lewellen looks back on a pivotal moment in U.S. soccer history — the 1990 World Cup — and how it changed the trajectory of the sport in the States. For Part I of the series, on the recent changes in high school and youth soccer, click here.
If a “modern era” in American soccer exists, it began on November 19, 1989, when the U.S. National team, made up of current and former college players, played Trinidad and Tobago in Port-of-Spain for the final spot in the 1990 World Cup. Trinidad and Tobago needed only a tie to advance to the World Cup. The U.S. needed a victory. Of course nobody expected the U.S. to win; they hadn’t played in a World Cup since 1950.
But that game against Trinidad and Tobago had an additional dramatic wrinkle: The year before, in 1989, FIFA had awarded the United States the rights to host the 1994 World Cup. Because of the country’s lack of a professional league and its general ambivalence toward the world’s sport, the decision — as FIFA’s decisions often are — was met with criticism and disdain. But FIFA saw an opportunity to use the World Cup to grow the sport in the United States. As the host country, the U.S. would get an automatic bid to the ’94 World Cup. But if they failed to qualify for the ’90 World Cup, it would be an embarrassment, proof that the U.S. could not play at an elite, international level — and did not deserve to host the ’94 World Cup.
Not only was American pride at stake, so were the players’ jobs; they knew that if they lost to Trinidad and Tobago, their contracts — and their salaries — with the U.S. Soccer Federation would be in jeopardy.
In the first of a series of posts on the future of soccer in the United States, Andrew Lewellen looks at the U.S. Soccer Federation's efforts to centralize the development of youth talent. Check back next week for Part II, when Andrew takes a look at a pivotal moment in U.S. soccer history — the 1990 World Cup — and how it changed the trajectory of the sport in the States.
On a hot and hazy June Saturday in Los Angeles, two high-school-aged boys' soccer teams are taking the field for their final regular-season game. One team is playing for the conference title. Sounds pretty basic. All across the country at this moment youth soccer teams are competing — kids in cleats and shin guards dribbling and slide tackling and yelling things like “Good ball!” and “Switch it!” while a team parent organizes a postgame snack of Capri Suns and grocery-store cupcakes.
But this game is different. The two teams are members of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. The game is being played at the Home Depot Center, and the complex’s 27,000-seat soccer stadium — home to Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA — towers in the distance. The home team, the one playing for the conference title, is the Galaxy’s under-18 academy side. If they win, they’ll advance to the national playoffs. If they lose, it will be the end of a season that began 10 months ago, in August. For all that time, the boys on both teams have trained four times a week, competed in one game a week, and played for no other team — not even their high schools. And that’s the way U.S. Soccer wants it.