American soccer fans are a self-critical bunch with a remarkable willingness to wallow. Though the sport is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, the domestic MLS is often stigmatized and tarnished as déclassé; a shiny aura still cloaks any player arriving from abroad (especially if he has an American military parent), and when the USMNT loses one game, the sky falls. On the occasion we actually beat a true world power, a caveat is quickly conjured to diminish the feat. (Choose one: "They played their C-team"; "The opposing players were in postseason mode"; "The heat got to them.")
This uncanny impulse to grab the dark lining within any golden cloud is worth pondering as MLS celebrates its All-Star Game on Wednesday night. The league's attendance is on a record pace. Players such as Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Eddie Johnson have stepped up to power a U.S. squad that won the Gold Cup and is likewise acing World Cup qualifying in the Hexagonal.
The inherent insecurity that buffets MLS was abundantly apparent in May when Manchester City collaborated with baseball's New York Yankees to unveil their ownership of New York City Football Club as the league's 20th franchise. Though the announcement brought two of the deepest-pocketed franchises in global sport to the American game, it was met with a curiously skeptical response. Naysayers reveled in identifying every possible banana skin, from the potential branding challenges the club will face to win over New York's Manchester United fans, to woefully constructed comparisons to the languishing Chivas USA experiment.
Is it jealousy, envy, masochism or narcissism that makes us torment ourselves so? I asked ESPN broadcaster Alexi Lalas why his own entertainingly provocative "Big Head Red Head" podcast debated a litany of ways the NYCFC experiment could go pear-shaped.
"MLS was born the bastard child of self-loathing and self-doubt," Lalas admitted with a chuckle. "We are apologetic to a fault when it comes to our league. The self-loathing is legendary and in many ways a hindrance. But it's borne of a culture that always told us we could never measure up to the rest of the world when it came to soccer."
In Lalas' mind, it is no easy task to overcome that inferiority complex and learn to love ourselves. "The way we feel comes from years of challenge, false starts and leagues that boomed only to peter out. The net result is we love to kick ourselves for what we have not done and are often blind to the incredible progress we have really made."
Proof of point for Lalas is the way Americans in general and the U.S. men's national team in particular remain, in his words, "mesmerized by foreigners." "The league has a long history of foreign imports, from Lothar Matthaus to Rafa Marquez, who have not adapted despite their résumés because the level is higher than they anticipate here," Lalas said. "It is a complete fallacy you have to go to Europe to be a better player. It may have helped Michael Bradley, but I don't believe Landon Donovan's growth and potential was stunted by staying in MLS."
Few are better positioned to discuss this than Lalas. In 1994, he became the first American to join the Italian Serie A. "I made a lot more money when I came back because I was seen as a better player," he said. "Even though I benefited from that, I know a lot of it is just perception and marketing."
Constantly playing defense
Donovan was also front of mind for MLS and USMNT player-turned-broadcaster Jimmy Conrad. "MLS suffers from soccer's global complexity," he suggested. "The NFL, NBA and MLB have all of the world's best players in them. MLS does not, and because the comparison is jarring, we have to constantly defend it and defend Donovan -- a man who actually wants to play Major League Soccer."
Based on firsthand experience, Conrad believes MLS is still recovering from the lack of credibility ingrained during its early "hashmark field" days. "We lacked our own stadia. The fields were marked for NFL play," he remembered of the days when he broke through with San Jose in 1999. "We changed out of the trunk of our cars before practice and had nowhere to shower afterwards. We called it a pro league, but it did not feel very professional on $24,000 a year.
"But David Beckham's arrival forced the league to raise their standards, and the Yankees-Manchester City franchise is only going to push that bar."
As is his wont, Conrad coins a phrase -- "the Freddy Adu-ification of talent" -- to describe a second facet undermining U.S. soccer. "We have to stop desperately crowning guys who turn out to be crap," he said with a passion. "One minute, Juan Agudelo is going to be the best thing ever, according to 'SportsCenter.' All of a sudden, he has growing pains and we are on to Teal Bunbury for a month before jumping all over Brek Shea. Instead of letting these guys develop, we place them on a pedestal too quickly, and the only way is down."
However, the third challenge Conrad identifies remains outside of MLS's power.
"The World Cup is everything here because there is nothing else to mark ourselves against, and the problem is, there is such a thin line between success and failure."
Conrad was on the 2006 team that was ranked as high as fourth in the world going into the tournament yet failed to emerge from the group stage. "Our goal was to build on the team's 2002 performance but we ended up in the Group of Death and Ghana did us in."
He still sounds like a man pained by the experience. "Everyone remembers 2002 as a great success, but in truth, we needed South Korea to score a late goal and beat Portugal so we could reach the elimination round. In both World Cups, one play changed everything and transformed the way everybody thought about the health and direction of U.S. soccer."
Hunger undermines the good
One man in a unique position to evaluate MLS is agent-turned-football sports marketer Charlie Stillitano, once the MetroStars' general manager and now the architect of the Guinness International Champions Cup, which concludes Aug. 7. The tournament features a gaggle of European giants -- including Real Madrid, Juventus and Chelsea -- plus the MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy, with the matches taking place in five U.S. cities. "Americans love two things: big events and being the best. We are not the best right now and we can't stand it," Stillitano said. "The irony is, MLS is better than most leagues on earth.
"It may not compare with La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A or EPL, but the quality of play is improving, the stadia are terrific, the sponsorship has really advanced, and in places like Portland and Seattle, their fan bases have become more 'English' than in many English stadiums."
Stillitano uses the Italian word invidioso, or envy, to describe the underlying emotion which he believes bedevils American soccer. "Ever since the 1995 Parmalat Cup -- which birthed the existence of American 'Euro snobs' by bringing over Parma, Boca Juniors and Benfica -- there has been a market here to watch the best teams in the world," Stillitano explained. "But the American spectator has wised up, and 'Messi and Friends' proves they will not be fooled -- they need a real competitive edge to their football."
Stillitano believes the Galaxy's results matter in the Guinness tournament. "We are close to a reality where MLS teams can really compete with the best, and once that affirmation comes, the love affair between Americans and American soccer will truly begin."
Conrad strikes a middle ground. "I see change happening organically," he admitted, "but we need to win the CONCACAF Champions League, beat Mexico consistently, and compete with the best teams in the world on a regular basis with no caveats to stop fans from glomming on to the negative."
Lalas believes only one factor will make that change possible: "Once MLS can compete financially, there will be a massive influx of big-name players because so many want to live in the U.S. and have an American experience. If that occurs, an American player will be able to say he wants to 'play for a big team' and really mean the L.A. Galaxy."
Lalas described this vision in an uncharacteristically slow, sad voice. "If I were to say to you that next summer we will win the World Cup, you would laugh," he rued. "We are a country where the belief that everything is possible is what has made us great. It is odd to be American and as pessimistic about something as we are about our own soccer."