With another international window halting league football for an extended break, I’ve been revisiting some thoughts about why I came to follow Sunderland in the first place.
I’ve come to some conclusions that some international fans, especially in the US may also resonate with.
MLS and a lack of Interest
I’ve always been a massive football fan, and have played since I was 4 or 5. But the extent of my watching football at a young age was limited to USA games every four years or so.
The final qualifying stage and then the World Cup itself was just about all the exposure I had to professional football.
I watched my first MLS game in 1998 and began to wonder why the game I was watching seemed like a different sport than what I watched when the World Cup rolled around.
MLS, from its inception, was hyper-focused on drawing the casual American sports fan rather than simply beginning a US professional soccer league formatted like the rest of the world.
Their experimentation with rules such as the 35-yard running shootout, golden goal extra time for league games, and a game clock countdown rather than a running clock were just some ways they tried to “Americanize” the beautiful game.
As a young lad, I, like so many others, was left confused as to why the “soccer” we watched now year-round at home looked so different from the brand of international football every four years.
I was left disillusioned and completely uninterested in what was happening at home.
Geography and Structure
The Americanization of the game wasn’t the only factor in the long-term failure of MLS for many football fans in the US - geography was another major drawback.
The MLS began with just 10 teams in 1994 in some of the major US cities, and aside from a brief addition to 12 teams from ‘98-02, stayed at 10 teams until their expansion stage which took the league from 10 to 20 teams gradually from 2004 until 2015.
MLS then entered into its second growth stage which is currently ongoing, that plans to grow from 20 to 30 teams before the 2024 season.
The problem though is that geographically the early days of MLS and even its expansion into the present format leaves vast areas of the country without an MLS team within several hundred miles of their homes.
For example, from the first day of MLS until next season's launch of Charlotte FC, the closest professional team for me to support was DC United in Washington, DC… almost 400 miles away, and much of the country is in a similar situation.
That’s further away than the entire UK is wide.
The other drawback is the structure of MLS. It’s not just that the closest top-flight league to my home was 400 miles away, but that the closest professional team at all was that close.
The US has a semi-professional league called USL that somewhat resembles non-league football in the UK. However, the differences are stark, and I believe what will ultimately keep MLS as a novelty league at best is the lack of promotion and relegation.
USL is less a part of an American footballing structure, and more of a grassroots academy system for the MLS. USL teams have no pathway for promotion into MLS, and therefore have very little to no profitability on their own. And because of their use as developmental training grounds, a large portion of their attendance for matches are MLS scouts and other backroom staff. There also isn’t any reason to support these USL teams from a fan perspective, because “winning” a USL league title means absolutely nothing - other than that the best players will probably move on to play for an MLS side.
The British Invasion - What We Were Looking For
All factors at play, the true football fan in the US was stuck waiting around for a World Cup or anything other than this novelty version of the game we loved. And all that happened for the first time in the mainstream US sports world in 2006 with the introduction of the Fox soccer channel design to broadcast the full EPL 2006-2007 season.
Prior to this season, EPL broadcasting in the US was limited to highlights, time-delayed replays or partial season visibility.
The 2006/2007 season changed everything - true football in its full beauty for the first time in a way that represented the game rightly for an American audience in a league setting. The frenzy had taken hold. American fans began to fall in love with the history, success, culture, and communities of teams across the pond in droves.
This was evidenced by NBC’s acquisition of the Premier League’s US TV rights in 2013 for a cool $1 billion for six years, and is further demonstrated by the now National Phenomenon of #PremierLeagueMornings. From as early as 4am in some places, on Saturdays across the country, masses of fans sit in dark living rooms watching their teams take the pitch.
Trying Not To Mess It Up
Unfortunately, the Premier League and entire EFL pyramid’s growth in popularity in America hasn’t brought positives alone. The influx of fans has brought an influx of business interest from the US, and “quality” American talent hasn’t always translated when transfers have been made to UK teams.
Failed transfers such as Brek Shea, Johann Smith, Tony Meola, Eddie Johnson, Kenny Cooper, and (sorry to even mention him) Jozy Altidore have left a bad taste in the mouths of some UK local supporters.
Money-hungry American owners such as The Glazer family, Fenway Sports group and Stan Kroenke influenced Premier League involvement in the wretched Super League attempt last year. And failed owners such as (sorry again) Ellis Short have some EFL, longtime supporters saying “Thanks, But No Yanks” to not only potential, future US players or owners, but fans as well.
However, due to the history above and the no deep-rooted love of the clubs we’ve come to support, Yankee supporters are here and here to stay, myself most especially included.
Haway The Lads!