MLS Fans Don’t Understand International Soccer

Brian McBride

So says L.E. Eisenmenger of the ever curious US Soccer Players website, in an interesting but rather speculative piece about the supposed lack of sophistication of MLS fans about the international soccer world, starting with the claim that “MLS fans may be unaware of international rivalries and even of the relationship between MLS and the National Team.”

For evidence of this, Eisenmenger interviews Dan Courtemanche, an MLS/SUM executive, and comes to the conclusion from his rather bland statements that it’s difficult for MLS to market an individual player because MLS fans might not understand that a sudden transfer abroad doesn’t mean their club is worthless.

Lately, the MLS clubs have been spinning an adult fan centered theme, but marketing National Team players and the team itself is more complex. Due to outgoing transfers of National Team players, it’s risky for MLS clubs to invest in promoting players that may move on within months. Also, many MLS fans are unfamiliar with the transitory nature of international soccer and may view the departure of a hotly promoted player as a club failure, which also fights against the club’s incentive to promote their hottest players, their great assets.

Given the low salary cap of MLS, it’s often difficult to convince even educated fans a player transfer abroad is not a knock against the League.  At the same time, marketing prime players is necessary to promote their current clubs and the National Team. In essence, what’s missing here is the fan confidence in those clubs to manage the transfers of their national team players, and lost in that is the public understanding of the club vs. country conflict, a concept that has largely evaded Americans due to the internal nature of US team sports.

The club vs. country conflict may be one that is largely alien to US team sports, but the power of the dollar and the pull of ambition is not. When for a variety of financial reasons a small-market baseball team can’t hold on to a hot pitching prospect and he moves on to the Yankees for more money and a shot at the World Series, or the salary cap forces an NFL team to trade a star player away, fans are generally able to grasp why. The fact economics also impacts on MLS isn’t that hard to grasp, and the difficulties the salary cap presents for teams in holding onto talent is fairly widely known, is it not?

Perhaps I happen to hang out with an unusual hardcore of MLS fans who also follow international soccer closely and understand these basics perfectly well.  In fact, this is almost certainly the case. But I’d be curious to know what the rest of you think — are MLS fans in general really “unfamiliar with the transitory nature of international soccer” and unable to grasp why their team may have to sell a star player on?

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