Tradition and Rivalry in. . .MLS?

I was at a bar full of Fire fans last night, watching my Chicago Fire beat DC United 3-2 on aggregate in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. It was a thrilling and agonising game for both sets of fans, the Fire almost blowing a 3-0 aggregate lead, with DC’s late equaliser ruled out (rightly) for a handball. But I don’t bring up the result to taunt DC fans. Instead, I want to highlight how their varied responses to the game say a lot about the progress of MLS.

But that’s jumping ahead. About an hour before the game, when the bar was still filling up, a bloke walked up to his friend, a fairly old Scotsman in a Fire jersey.

“What are you doing here tonight?”, he asked.
“Watching the Fire in the playoffs,” the Scotsman replied.
“Oh, that Mickey Mouse thing?”
“Aye, but you know, that’s what they used to say about the Scottish League.”
“That’s true.”

I think people do still say that about the Scottish League, at least in England, but you wouldn’t do so to a bar full of Rangers or Celtic fans watching an Old Firm derby unless you wanted to lose your teeth.

It may sound trite, but games like last night’s passionate thriller help MLS build its own history and credibility. We are building rivalries, based on passion, bile, loyalty, irrational hatreds. The things leagues that have been around for decades depend on to keep fans interested even if the world’s best players aren’t on the field.

And indeed, try telling the hundred Fire fans screaming their heads off in the bar last night after the game, or the DC fans feeling the pain this morning, that MLS is a Mickey Mouse league. The latter’s responses are especially revealing, as we’ll discover after the jump.


Consider Pitch Invasion contributor Max, a DC supporter. He emailed me last night, after the game, and his words speak for themselves.

I have a splitting headache. And I want to cry. I mean, I literally
want to just cry all over my keyboard. I’ve never reacted to any
play, ever, like that called back goal when I thought it was good.

Good job by your boys. I hate, fucking hate, Blanco so much I can’t
even comprehend.

This is horrible. This is football, huh?

I need beer.

The Score Doesn't Matter
This morning, D at the DCenters emphasises instead his reaction based around pride despite the fall.

Tradition.

It was the slogan of the season, backed up on the web banner by more silver than you see in the teeth of your average Crunk performer, a tally we added to this season. It was a promise, but it was also the biting fear entering this match against Chicago, a team we’ve never beaten in the playoffs, a team that we’ve never scored upon in the playoffs, a team that dealt us one of the most humiliating defeats we’ve ever suffered in 2005.

. . .

Only, tradition is not merely about trophies (though that’s a lot of it) or is it about match results. It is about watching a team I care about, and watching a team repay me with their effort on the pitch. For all the under-10 youth league soccer cliches, sometimes heart can be more rewarding than results, and for me personally this was one of those games. Even as Eric Wynalda was discussing the similarities to 2005 while the sound of the Sabers game on the TV next to us in the bar threatened to drown him out, United rallied and went down fighting. When I thought Gomez had collected our third goal, I screamed aloud, jumping up and down, only to collapse when the goal was (correctly) called back. But they kept at it, even with the disappointment.

Can I complain about the first half? Of course. Can I complain about us losing because of a misstep on the road? Yes, absolutely… But I won’t. Instead, this is more personal. My ultimate complaint is that I was in Buffalo, New York on the final game of DC United’s season, and I didn’t say good-bye in person. For this team honored our tradition, fought valiantly, and I shall miss them. This off-season will likely see at least one of those players I saw not step onto the field again. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see Esky again before he was gone. Who knows how it will be this off-season? And I wish I could have had a chance to say good-bye myself.

In a similar vein, Longshoe at Who Ate all the Cupcakes also emphasises his longstanding connection to DC, and argues it’s something American soccer fans can build best with teams in their own country.

I talked before about the Atlanta Ruckus being the first team I ever really felt connected to. The second was DC United. John Harkes was my favorite player back then, and DCU became my team when Harkes was allocated to them. When they drafted Mike Huwiler, a former Ruckus player, that just sealed the deal. I still have the first DC United shirt they ever sold, with Harkes’ autograph on it, even though it’s pretty much falling apart at this point.

By this point in my soccer life, I was able to see the big European teams play from time to time. I saw a Manchester United v. Newcastle game that hooked me on the Red Devils because of their attacking style and Cantona’s brilliance. However, I’d get to see that United 4 or 5 times a season while I could see the DC version in most every game. It was no contest as to who I cared about more.

. . .

I don’t have that type of history with other teams I follow, there’s too much distance. I’ll go out of my way to see a DC game, but just don’t care about other teams enough to do the same. DCU feels like “my team” while I just like watching the others play. Does that make any sense? It’s hard to really put into words, but that’s how it is.

That’s why I get so ticked when people say things like, “But it’s only MLS…” or “That was a pretty good for an MLS game…” or something similar. This league, the one in our backyards, shouldn’t be taking a backseat to leagues thousands of miles and oceans away. I really want to see that change quicker.

Next week (if the New England Revolution put away the New York Red Bulls this weekend) the Fire will travel to Foxboro for another playoff match up with the Revolution, something we face with a similar trepidation as DC do when they face us in the playoffs. There’s history there; bitterness there; scores to be settled on the field, and everyone involved will feel it.

This is what the league needs to build itself on: stories of revenge, redemption, long standing emnities, rather than the empty marketing we saw in the songs the league commissioned for each team.

Photo by Max J. Rosenthal on Flickr.

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