/ 23 June 2012

Beyond the Frontiers of American Soccer

There was a moment around the 40th minute where I wouldn’t have been anywhere other than Chester, Pennsylvania. The sun was setting comfortably past the corners of the stadium, coloring the sky beyond the overhanging roof. Warm percussion echoed through the park – packed solid all the way around – and hazy motion surrounded us. A line of checkered flags snapped in the distance, invoking the atmosphere of a medieval fair; that illusion was quickly complicated by a daunting and quite modern steel bridge that stretched over and behind us to New Jersey. It was almost too pleasant to work up concern for the match itself – but then, this was a Philly crowd, and an anxious buzz was growing.

The game had established a character now – the first goal would be a fortress – and players swirled before us, bunching and sprinting. A diminutive winger for the good guys went stepover, stepover, CURLING SHOT and drew an “aaawwwWWWW!” as his ball flew several feet wide of dangerous. The ball was retrieved, the tension reset and we prepared to build it again. A breeze picked up off the river and found us in our seats – and when I looked to its source, I caught a ferry boat gliding past the endline stand, the top of its cabin peeking out between flags and miniature heads with tiny, open mouths that stopped singing only long enough – I supposed – to gulp down half-cups of beer. I scanned the supporter’s section and found the source of the inescapable drumbeat down in front, blur-attacking his kettle drum, pounding out a rhythm I heard seconds after his mallets hit. Light was faster than sound, which was in turn faster than Freddy Adu. (And sadly for Philly, just a bit more threatening.)

PPL Park, Chester, Penn.

It was urgent, but fixed in time; a memory forming right in front of me. PPL Park on a summer evening. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written about this feeling. Without stressing too much about the outcome, or the teams, or the skill on display, it was a moment any long-time American soccer fan would dream about, a minor culmination that told me how far we’ve come, and how unique we are as a soccer culture. The 40th minute of the Philadelphia Union’s eventual loss to D.C. United, and most of the minutes before and after, made me really happy. I’ll want to revisit the memories often.

Of course, I don’t live in Philly; I live in Boston. Soccer moments in Boston are different. I speak only for myself, of course, but the Major League Soccer experience near me can’t conjure up moments to match the way I felt last Saturday in Chester. The Revs don’t do it. Gillette Stadium doesn’t. Foxboro, Mass. doesn’t. If PPL Park, the Sons of Ben, and the Philly Union pulled up their roots, tore off their jerseys, and hopped the Acela to Boston tomorrow you’d think I’d be ecstatic. And indeed, I contemplated that thought for a few minutes, and for a few minutes, I did want my very own Chester in Boston for the Revs.

But then I kept thinking. Shielded my eyes to catch a cross along the far side of the field. Thought some more. A couple of kids in Union jerseys, rows in front of me, jumped up at a rolling tackle. (“RED CARD! Come ON!”). I watched the sun disappear behind the roof girders, and the stadium lights instantly take on more prominence. It was in first half stoppage time that I realized I didn’t really want Chester. I wanted the Revs to do better. I wanted them to aim higher.

Spock: After a time, you may find that “having” is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as “wanting.” It is not logical, but it is often true.
Star Trek (Original Series): Amok Time

It’s possible I’m too optimistic about soccer in America, but I don’t think so. 1970s-era “Sport of the Future” nonsense makes me cringe like any normal person; it was off in the same way that Star Trek’s 1960s take on “the future” included manual dials and incandescent bulbs. But what makes those visionary ideas about the future so charmingly wrong is also what ultimately insulates them from criticism. When you talk about the future, you risk describing it using terms and metaphors and materials and circumstances that will likely be made obsolete. How could someone from the Victorian Age know what plastics are, and how we use them? [note: after publishing, I was made aware that Parkesine, the first plastic, was developed in 1862. The more you know!] Could anyone in the 1940s understand the implications of what we know as the internet? And how could anybody from 1985 understand the levitation science behind the now-common hoverboard? (Sigh. I thought it would be here by now.)

Prediction fails not merely when vision lacks, but also when context changes. It happens to technology; it happens to culture. And it happens to sport. People in the 1970s couldn’t have reliably predicted that ESPN (whose founder was busy getting fired from the Hartford Whalers) would come to broadcast every game of every Euro and World Cup in sparkling high definition to everybody’s living rooms, or that Nike (whose founder was busy playing with waffle irons) would rise to dominate sporting culture and pour resources into making soccer stars into global icons. Or that the US would bid for, win, and host the most-attended World Cup of all time in just a few years. Or that that Cup would kickstart a domestic league that would come to be respected internationally. Or that the rise of the internet would spawn blogs and message boards that gave fans a communal water cooler, and eventually a means to organize themselves. These are just a few of the unpredictable developments along the American soccer timeline; they take their place with thousands of other recent cultural inventions that have uniquely defined our present moment.

All anybody knew in the 70s was that tons of American kids were playing soccer, and kids grow up to be adults. Ergo, soccer takes over everything by 1990. Now we can look back and see the roles that money, and marketing, and globalism, and media played, and we can call those soccer Aquarians a bit naive. Soccer didn’t take off in the States for decades, and when it did, it didn’t take over – it found a niche. When it started to grow, it wasn’t because a bunch of kids who used to dribble around cones down at the park had grown up into Ultras. It was far more complicated than that. It was because the context of American culture changed, and suddenly there was space for soccer.

You can’t fault those older soccer visionaries, because (lacking Biff’s Sports Almanac) they couldn’t know how intricate future circumstances would be, and how simplistic and obsolete their opinions would look. But the future comes true regardless of prediction. We don’t have tricorders now, but we do have iPhones. We don’t have Soccer Bowls instead of Super Bowls, but we do have PPL Park where there once was deserted riverbank, filled with song and heart on a perfect summer Saturday. The vision that started with halftime orange slices has reached its unpredictably futuristic expression in what represents the American soccer frontier at this instant: a modern, purpose-built stadium, somewhere between a great minor-league baseball park and a traditional European futbol venue, on a sketchy fringe between city and suburbia. It’s filled with enthusiastic fans and capable players, each who’ve learned as much about soccer from TV and marketing as they have from tradition and history and blood. The concrete manifestation of this vision is capable of producing moments like my first-half reverie – simple and happy and atmospheric and even weighted and timeless. It’s demonstrable, wonderful progress for American soccer.

It’s also miles beyond what soccer fans in Boston can experience right now. But again, now that I’ve been to PPL, if you offered me a swap for everything that Philly has, I wouldn’t take it. I’ve heard that the great is the enemy of the good; in this case, PPL Park is the “good”. The “great” is what must come next. The New England Revolution missed out on MLS “2.0”; they need to be the first team to target version 3. If the Union are at the frontier, leading the charge, it’s not enough for the Revs (who are currently taking a snooze back at camp) to wake up and join them. Teams like New England need to target the next frontier of American soccer, not the current one. The Revolution need to learn from, and then jump past PPL Park and the Philly Union. Whereas PPL (and other modern MLS stadia) are the realizations of a vision begun in the 1970s, the Revs need to prepare a platform for the team, the region and the sport that will realize a vision that has its beginnings today.

McCoy: Where are we going?
Kirk: Where they went.
McCoy: What if they went nowhere?
Kirk: Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

So what would make the Revs the first next-next-generation MLS organization? What would it mean to target the next frontier? My trip to PPL Park in Chester clarified a few things for me.

First, the Revs need to activate their ownership, create an identity for the team that resonates, and capture hearts in New England, and Boston very specifically. I’ve written about this. Extensively. This is MLS 2.0 stuff, but despite making some progress this year (a jersey sponsor, improvements in fan group relations, a designated player and a more exciting style of play) the organization isn’t really close yet. Philly is doing a pretty great job of this – adults and kids love the jerseys, every other fan wears a scarf (not just the hard-cores in supporters section), and the colors are everywhere. The Union have a real presence on the Philadelphia sporting landscape, and in the mindshare of the Philly region. The Revolution can and should study, emulate, rip off – pick your term – much of their success. But even if the Revolution could copy everything Philly has done, it would only put them on even footing today. They need to be thinking about how to out-Philly Philly, and out-Portland Portland, and out-Seattle Seattle, not just how to match them. I know, given where the Revs are, it sounds like too much to ask for. But it can be done. And it starts with strong, creative leaders. Getting visionary leadership is the first step.

Second, after visiting PPL, it’s become obvious to me that the Revs need to build in Boston’s urban core. A stadium “on the T” – aka, public transit access in name only – isn’t enough. The Revolution need to weave their stadium into the fabric of Boston proper. Taking the Blue Line to Revere isn’t the answer. Before I went to Chester, I thought it might be, that the option was OK simply because it would beat the current Gillette experience hands down. But it’s not. Because beyond the in-stadium atmosphere, Chester isn’t Philly, and the experience suffers for it. A Revolution stadium in Revere, or nearby in Suffolk Downs, will at best give the Revs a chance to replicate Chester.

Downtown Chester.

Chester isn’t someplace anyone wants to be before and/or after matches. Though it’s less than half the distance to urban Philly that Foxboro is to Boston, it’s still 15 miles away from the city. And though a passenger rail line runs to within a mile of the stadium, it didn’t look very active when I drove by (on my way to 95 North) a half-hour after the game. Sure, Chester isn’t just parking lots and gravel (hi, Foxboro!), but its infrastructure isn’t what you’d call delightful. It’s a severely depressed area, and not one being threatened by gentrification any time soon. By many accounts, the stadium isn’t helping the locality, and may actually be harming it. Chester is, sadly, a place soccer fans drive to, stay for three or four hours, kick up dust in $20 parking lots under a bridge, and drive out of as soon as they can. It’s nothing other than the closest community to Philly that MLS could cut a deal with, and that cynicism bleeds through, just as it would in Revere.

Using less-than-ideal locations like Chester has, to now, been considered acceptable to MLS teams – a compromise necessary to get stadiums built and in-game atmosphere perfected. But it’s hard to escape the fact that PPL Park embodies that gigantic compromise quite viscerally, and that the Union have tied decades of their future to a place that simply isn’t Philadelphia – and may not even want them anyway. It may be easy to concentrate on the good stuff now, but this will weigh on the club more and more as we evolve into a nation that cherishes soccer. Stadia in the urban core – Seattle, Portland and Toronto come to mind – are positioned to the future. Enduring stadiums are served by multiple forms and multiple lines of public transit, and can be walked to by a majority of city residents. This is Fenway Park in Boston. Or JELD-WEN Field in Portland. Walkable, public-transit friendly, urban-fabric stadia: this will be the standard of MLS 3.0. I’m not saying it’s easy to get an urban stadium built, especially in Boston. But this is where the Revs need to be.

Third, it’s clear that a particular style of play – up-tempo, creative, if not quite what old English guys like to call “champagne” football, “high life” football, maybe? – is the kind that American fans understand. Grinding out results, locking down road points, lavishing praise on individual genius – these all have a place in the global game; and I hope that in international play our teams (at both the club and national level) do what they need to do to win. But domestically there needs to be an emphasis on entertaining, creative attack. This – more than victories, even – is what binds the fans to the game itself. There’s a trope that typical American sports fans need scoring and collisions and constant action, and will never understand why a 1-1 game of anything could be considered exciting. Like many stereotypes, I think this has a basis in truth. Boring 1-1 soccer games aren’t that fun to watch, but exciting 1-1 games can be legendary. Americans – often because of a lack of tactical and athletic skill – have been subjected to more than their share of the former. Simply injecting more scoring isn’t a fix (in my estimation, that just gives you lacrosse). Americans aren’t suckers for mindless scoring – they’re suckers for incredible athletic moments. A crafty winger nutmegging a defender, cutting to his left, crossing 20 yards to his right where he connects with a mid-fielder who – already airborne, screws his body into a coil and half-volleys, putting it off the keeper’s glove into the post and out for a corner – that’s a moment. It’s not a goal, but it’s a moment. That play gets absolutely anyone who honestly cares about sports off of their seat. Now layer on chanting, and singing, and percussion, and buzz, and beer, and rivalry, and history, and the weight and tension that mounts as a tied game approaches the 85th minute – and you have something primal. This feeling, even in a 1-1 game, gets to the soul of the American sports fan.

If MLS 1.0 was about playing something the world agreed was soccer, and MLS 2.0 was about having marketing success and winning domestic trophies, the first MLS 3.0 club will be the one that plays the most attacking, creative, witty, purposeful, ruthless team soccer imaginable. The players need skill, of course, which is coming; but they also need visionary tactical guidance – which is still mostly wanting in MLS. If the Revolution want to make a generational leap, I propose that they spend designated player-level money on a coach-tactician-craftsman who molds the way the organization plays, all the way down the their youth levels, and creates something that’s never been seen in MLS. A relentless, creatively-attacking juggernaut that may or may not score, but makes you clutch your seat and gasp every 60 seconds or so. (And it wouldn’t hurt if the park and the atmosphere are ready to amplify those moments.)

Spock: Captain… life is not a dream.
Kirk: Go to sleep, Spock.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The River End.

The Union are doing things as right as you can in today’s MLS. PPL Park is real, and quite beautiful, and I’ll remember that crystal-clear, perfect 40th minute it gave me for the rest of my life. But moments are fleeting. That moment is already days old as I write this; soon it will be months and even years past, complicated by new history. That’s the thing about frontiers; they keep moving. MLS teams shouldn’t be chasing today’s frontiers, trying to capture today’s perfect moments. They should be preparing to offer tomorrow’s. And where Chester, today, realizes a vision, I recommend that Boston pursue a Revolution.

Mark Willis writes about art, design, soccer and web stuff here on mwillis.com, and on Twitter. If you like tech and Apple stuff, read “A Couple Things I Wish Apple Did Better”, or “Being a Commodity”. If you like soccer, read about rebooting the Revs, or how the Revs work in the age of mutual love. And if you like sweet t-shirts, check out some stuff to buy. Drop him a line about anything at mark@mwillis.com.