The short answer is yes, since Brazil, Argentina, and many other nations compete just fine at the World Cup without having a dominant domestic soccer league. The longer answer is more complicated. Will America get its best athletes to play soccer when American football and basketball get the bulk of national attention? And will soccer get enough attention when the World Cup only happens once every four years?
One way for more attention is a stronger CONCACAF, something that may well be on the horizon with the successes of Costa Rica and Mexico this World Cup. That means more ‘big’ games over the course of four years, more bars filled with hipsters and immigrants watching the U.S. team try and win the Gold Cup. But even here, will American fans watch the big game between us and Costa Rica? Maybe…Part of the problem for Americans embracing soccer is that the top teams are not the traditional rivals of the U.S. Beating England makes sense; Italy and even Brazil, too. But it takes some sophistication and humility to recognize that Costa Rica is a worthy rival to the United States. We have the same problem with Mexico–absolutely a worthy rival in soccer terms (and Mexico showed itself to be stronger in this WC than the U.S.), but its hard to get Americans to embrace the idea that Mexico is a rival. Can US-Mexico get the rivalry game juices flowing like Yankees-Red Sox? In Seattle, where they’ve embraced their rivalry with the Portland Timbers with relish, yes. Not in Tea Party America, nor even NFL America.
Sure, NFL America is not our target audience. They’ll never understand the patience and subtleties of soccer, nor ever embrace the idea that it can be rewarding to root for a team that is usually expected to lose. But there is an audience that can be targeted: that likes soccer but isn’t following it more than once every four years. And to do that, we need more attention to the MLS.
To do that, we need to believe that some of the world’s best soccer and most competitive soccer is being played in the U.S. So that, when the MLS playoffs are occurring, it’s a major event–at least on par with the NHL playoffs. (We can dream of March Madness or the Super Bowl later.) If we are watching MLS in our homes, then our best athletes will think about soccer as their career–money will be available, and not just by going to Europe, as will fame and all the other forms of grandeur that we dream about as kids wanting to be LeBron, Tom Brady, and Buster Posey. We need the next Russell Wilson not just to be deciding between football and baseball, but soccer too. We need athletes like Russell Wilson to be on the USMNT so that Romelo Lukaku doesn’t bounce off our defenders like they don’t exist. A guy like Andrew Farrell on the Revolution might be promising, but even he’s under 6 feet and I’m not sure he’s that quick. We need Kevin Durant in goal (actually, we’re just fine with Tim Howard). We need LeBron as our Lukaku to charge down the right side, and no, its not Jozey Altidore. We need Russell Westbrook orchestrating the midfield. In short, we need some of our best athletes to play professional soccer. But LeBron is never going to do that if he has to take his talents to Manchester England when he can get paid by Miami instead.
So, how do we get a better MLS? The approach we are currently using–an upswell of local support around hard-working teams in Seattle, Kansas City, etc., is great. It’s doing things the right way, with real fans, real soccer, and an intelligent and passionate community that can continually say fuck you to the the mainstream commentators and can enjoy rooting for a sport that isn’t the world’s best, but can root with passion, enjoy the sardonic wisdom of meninblazers.com, and appreciate all the advantages of a sport that is not in the mainstream of American culture. (Which, btw, I personally support. I like the fact that soccer isn’t popular and I like that the U.S. team isn’t the best in the world. Being the best in the world is great but it can get boring. I’m not going to cry with joy when the U.S. mens basketball team beats France in the Olympics no matter how many Boris Diaw’s are on the French team. I will when we beat Germany or Brazil in a WC semifinals, especially when we dominate with our athleticism and skill). But for UMNT to succeed as the world’s best, we need to do it the wrong way, the way American professional sports (and the SEC) are run. We need much more money to buy the best players. And that means huge corporate sponsorships that necessitates selling out Sporting Kansas City for the building of a soccer version of the New York Yankees and LA Lakers. Getting David Villa and maybe Frank Lampard to NYFC isn’t going to work; just like with Beckham to the Galaxy, we know these guys aren’t the best anymore and we feel like we are watching an oldies nostalgia act. What we need is James Rodriguez or someone like him to come play for us. Impossible, you say? Yes. Absolutely. At this point in time, at least. But how about Chicharito Hernandez? He’s not playing a lot with Man U. Could enough money bring him to an MLS team? We need star young talent to play for the MLS, and the way to start is to get the guys who aren’t quite the stars of Europe and can’t command star money there. Not David Villa (who I love by the way, and I’m very excited he’s coming to the MLS, I just wish it was 4 years ago), but guys who we can imagine are among the best in the world now. Mix such stars with some slightly past their prime Europeans, some American home grown stars, and some exciting up and comers, and we will start to have a real league that people will watch because they think the league is at least approaching some of the best soccer in the world. (I’m not suggesting Julian Green here because until MLS gets better, we need our best young players to stay away–sending Yedlin to
Liverpool A.C. Milan isn’t a bad idea either even if he is exactly what MLS needs–we need people to join him before he wastes his best opportunities for growth playing here). Once we do that, our best Americans will start to play soccer.