Long Neck, 25 June
Dear Karl Ove,
I had to take a break from watching the matches. I know we are writing this book, a collection of letters exchanged during the World Cup, but I was starting to feel like a pig at the trough or a glutton who’s gorged himself to the point of becoming sick. It was either take and day off or stagger to the vomitorium.
Last night, I spent the evening at Callahan’s with Jose. The France-Ecuador match was on in the corner, but neither of us were paying any particular attention. I think I didn’t miss much. What Jose and I were talking about was localism in soccer.
The topic of localism was fresh on my mind since that letter I wrote to you yesterday. What initially piqued my interest in soccer… well, it was a combination of things, no small part of which was my son starting to play the sport and my getting roped into coaching his team. But was really appealed to me about the game was its global character. Soccer is the world’s sport. It’s the most popular, most watched sport in the world. It is the lingua franca of our planet. The idea that there were all these leagues and teams all over the world each representing their town was an inspiring notion. Here we had a fun activity which could unite all of us.
As I wrote yesterday, I was already part of the movement to support local breweries and local farms. It was no great leap to supporting my local soccer team. The problem was figuring out what my local team was. Why this is a problem is that I live on Long Island which is essentially one sprawling decentralized suburbia. Long Island is the western culture’s suburban heartland (not dissimilar to Oklahoma in some aspects) bordered by New York on the west and Europe on the east. This is completely a fantasy of my own, but imagine that New York plays the role for me that Los Angeles does for the rest of the country and that makes Paris my New York, because for a guy from Oklahoma, New York is always in the East.
But enough about imaginary geography!
While I live in Long Neck and my son plays for Long Neck Soccer Club, there is nothing resembling a first team. Long Neck Soccer Club is a youth organization which stages a fun activity for kids; it’s not a spectator sport for the community. In principle, there is nothing preventing the good people from Long Neck from watching the sons and daughters of their neighbors kick the ball around, but no one does that. And I think it’s no great loss that they don’t — the soccer is barely watchable for the parents.
Having grown up in Oklahoma, I’m used to the idea of one’s town rallying around the high school American football team. (Here I’m talking about the sort of football which is actually played with the hands by large boys wearing plastic armor.) In Cimarron (my hometown, population 18,000, approximately), the high school football stadium could accommodate twelve thousand spectators. No one thought that was unusual or too big. It was the same size as the stadium the New York Cosmos play in. Every other Friday night during the fall, that high school football stadium in Cimarron would be packed out. The whole town would turn up. And thousands of people from some neighboring town would show up. The atmosphere was electric. For three years running Cimarron were state champs in our division. (I played in the school band, by the way, so I was at all of the games.) The point is that amateur sports played by children can be a community event and spectacle. Though anyone who has read Friday Night Lights will know there’s a dark side to thrusting our sons into the arena.
Long Neck does not have such an American football tradition. Only the parents of the football players show up to see the Hornets play. So if the American football team can’t pull a crowd in Long Neck, the soccer team hasn’t a chance.
When I started watching live soccer, I went all the way to New Jersey to watch the New York Redbulls. While it was a fun day out with stops in Manhattan going and coming for lunch and dinner, it was difficult to think of this New Jersey team as being my local team. So when the New York Cosmos rebooted last year, my attention shifted from New Jersey to Long Island. The New York Cosmos actually play on Long Island, but even though, it’s still an hour’s drive from my house in Long Neck to where they play in Hempstead. So while the New York Cosmos are as local a team as I can expect to get, it’s still not local in the sense of being located in my town.
What interests me most about studying soccer as the practice of social organization is that we are still trying to figure out how soccer works or can work in this country. We haven’t inherited a long-standing, established soccer culture here in the US. Which is not to say that there is no history of soccer in this country. We have a hundred year history of playing soccer in this country as is evidenced by the fact that this year is the one hundredth anniversary of our cup competition, the US Open Cup. But we are still trying to invent soccer here as a sustainable, self-supporting enterprise. The problem is that there are at least two opposing models competing, the commercial and the community models.
The commercial model is championed by the capitalist who which seeks to establish a soccer team as an entertainment business which stages events for spectators. This team is referred to as a “franchise” rather than as a “club” because it is completely owned an operated by the millionaire (at least) owner.
And then on the other side is the community model championed by the serious soccer fan who wants teams to be proper clubs instead of franchises. The serious soccer fan wants to build soccer from the bottom up. She wants a club in her community that is run by a supporters trust. (Which is not allowed in the US because it’s too “socialist” a concept for us rednecks.) And she wants the neighboring communities to also have their own soccer clubs so that there can be friendly competition in leagues organized in such a way that on-field success is rewarded with promotion to a better league.
But the capitalist wants to create a top-down monopoly where leagues are fixed, stable, and by extension stagnant. The MLS, our top league in the US, is an example of the sort of monopoly which is designed to benefit the capitalists. The league is essentially a closed system. Unlike the rest of the world, we don’t have promotion and relegation of teams between tiered leagues. The only way for a team to play in the first division is to purchase a franchise operator’s license from the MLS. The New York Cosmos do not play in the MLS. We play in the “second division” which is just an arbitrary designation. (Well, not completely arbitrary. The standards have to do with economic factors, not with on-field performance.) And I guess we will be in the second division forever since the current ownership evidently doesn’t get along with the powers-that-be at the MLS. Which is to say that (apparently) the CEO of the New York Cosmos, Seamus O’Brien, and Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, hate each other’s guts. There maybe good reasons for this mutual gut-hating, but I fail to see how either the MLS or the New York Cosmos benefit from a dispute between millionaires.
Division status in this country is essentially meaningless without promotion and relegation. As a fan I have no reason to care anything about the MLS since my team doesn’t play in the MLS. The only domestic league I care about is the NASL. The only conceivable reason why I would pay attention to the MLS is that some of the US national team players play in the MLS. But so far (since the return of the New York Cosmos) I haven’t found even that a sufficient incentive to care about the MLS. The only way I would care about the MLS is if promotion and relegation between NASL and MLS were introduced. And that’s never going to happen because the fat cat capitalists who control the MLS are too scared of letting go of their monopoly.
I fear I haven’t made my feelings on this subject clear. (He said jokingly.)
Sorry about getting carried away and writing about a subject which probably doesn’t interest you in the least. My plan was to write something about the USA-Germany match tomorrow. I’m feeling confident at the moment though I don’t think we will beat Germany. The best we can hope for is a draw, I think. And the draw will be good enough. Of course, the necessary result will depend on how well Ghana does against Portugal. I’m sure we’ll have both matches on simultaneously. If the USA loses to Germany, then whether we advance or not might come down to goal difference between us and Portugal. So I’ll be cheering for Ghana tomorrow as well.
Go USA! Go Ghana!