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The Big Pitcher – On The Level

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

There’s a surprising lack of doom and gloom around MLS so far this year.

It’s true that American soccer fans are known for their level-headedness and taking a “wait-and-see” approach before jumping to conclusions about their teams (Pause for laughter). And yes it is early. But by God, the season’s started, why do so many fanbases still seem to have hope?

Perhaps I just read too many fan previews and familiarized myself with too many best and worst case scenarios now unfolding. If you put an infinite number of MLS bloggers in front of an infinite number of laptops, then eventually one of them will generate a preview that exactly mirrors the season.

Every death knell seems matched by an equal and opposite peal. Okugo and McInerney will win us the Cup in 20XX! With Gordon or Lenny on the field no way Wondo misses all those gift-wrapped chances against Salt Lake! Hey, at least we play Chicago next week!

This is a not-statistically-significant window into what parity looks like. Teams that were supposed to have continued their dominant runs have struggled. Teams that little was expected of have surged. Good teams that were thought might have some early roster turnover- and injury-induced hiccups have had some early roster turnover- and injury-induced hiccups.

Twelve of 19 teams have won one game. Only two have lost twice, and Colorado’s missing seemingly half its roster while Chicago has just proven everyone’s theory that Arne Friedrich’s name is inscribed above Austin Berry’s on last year’s Rookie of the Year trophy. Even Chivas USA have thwarted the impression that their season was going to end up looking like this and have started earning praise for their play:

In short, no one’s dreams have yet been dashed, which may not seem that surprising two weeks in but considering Barcelona and Bayern were somewhere between 7 and 13 points ahead at this mark in their respective seasons it certainly seems like another tick in favor of MLS. This is what the league as its structured is designed to do, from the draft before the season to the playoffs after it: Give everyone a chance for as long as possible.

But is parity worth it? Keeping certain teams financially and competitively within reach of the rest of the league is obviously of benefit to those rest of the league teams, but which way creates more fans for the league as a whole? Would it be worth introducing some peaks and valleys into the topography of the league’s playing field if it means more people would tune in for its biggest games?

More people watch games with big names and big-market teams, but for MLS last year the boost from that was small compared to factors like how good its lead-in program was. Some people watch MLS because of the teams that happen to be playing. A lot of people don’t watch because they haven’t yet been convinced that the league is worth their time.

This is a different way to ask the same question from last week: Will lopsided additional spending lead to more fans? And the answer from evidence we’ve seen overseas is probably yes. It’s no coincidence that the teams that were spending the most money on on-field product at the time when satellite television and the Internet began to open up the big European leagues to the rest of the world each and every week are the ones who picked up the most fans in the new global markets; you don’t see as many fans of Leverkusen or Valencia as you do of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Hell, you can find more “long-time” fans of Manchester City than you can of Porto or Monaco or to a team and being stuck with it of the other teams that actually had their glorious moment in the European sun.

But by the same token, the less successful, less rich clubs remain ill-positioned to take advantage of these new markets, and so are left further and further behind.. Their fan bases talk (a little facetiously, sure) of the burdens of their fandom, of being born and raised with this love that they can’t shake, no matter how much more appealing the Manchester sides of the league may look. The bulk of the money doesn’t trickle down, and neither do the bulk of the fans, leaving those who have grown up loving their team as the primary support system.

MLS isn’t ready yet for that kind of dichotomy. Too many American soccer fans are still picking their first MLS team; since they weren’t born into or adopted early by a fan culture, then why wouldn’t they take the option of flocking to the banner of a hypothetical sistemas solares superteam? Our theoretically American love for the underdog isn’t enough to keep people from rooting for the Yankees or the Lakers or Duke. The supporter nucleus will survive intact, but the people they’re supposed to be spreading the love for their team and their game to will be less open to the message. The parity days are already coming to a close as wealthy teams realize they can gain their competitive advantage by using all three DP slots or investing large sums of money into youth development to reap additional Homegrown rewards, but the league rightly realizes that it needs time for the foundations to solidify before it upends the competitive balance.

When it does, fans may find themselves longing for the good old days when teams still had hope even two weeks into the season.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending the Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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