Yesterday I read a very smart article on SBNation called “MLS has finally become a grown-up,” which convincingly made a case that Major League Soccer, which has been around since 1996, has found its footing as a league that has the confidence to draw fans by putting a fundamentally sound product on the field and emphasizing competitive, quality teams, rather than trying to be a pale shadow of famous European leagues. Anecdotally, I can say that interest in the MLS does seem to be picking up. A student of mine turned in a personal narrative essay in which he and some friends watched an MLS game. A kid at my daughter’s preschool sometimes wears a Steven Gerrard LA Galaxy jersey. The signs are everywhere.
But it’s a testament to how checked out I am as regards MLS that it didn’t even occur to me that the occasion for the SBNation article was the beginning of the new MLS season. I didn’t even have a rough idea of the MLS schedule. And, for the first time, that bugs me. I have no objection to soccer; on the contrary, I like it. I’m not currently saturated with sports; actually, I’d like to be paying them more attention, since I am a sports blogger and all. What’s my excuse?
So as the MLS season begins tonight, I’m making a change. After never paying the slightest amount of attention to the league for the first 22 years of its existence, I’m attempting to follow MLS for the first time, as an LA Galaxy fan. This actually constitutes two different decisions—to try MLS generally and to try the Galaxy particularly—and I’m going to break down each one.
On getting into MLS
In 2001-2002, I was in England on a study abroad program. As I’ve detailed before, I completely missed the boat on following the Premiership that season, only getting into soccer when the World Cup rolled around. That World Cup, in which the US surprisingly made the quarterfinals, made me jazzed about soccer for the first time in my life, as it apparently did for a lot of Americans, since according to Wikipedia MLS’s flagging fortunes began to turn around right afterward.
But it wasn’t just the Americans’ success that made soccer newly exciting to me: it was also soccer’s slick cosmopolitan coolness. The players (at least, the Brazilians) came from all over the world and had awesome one-word names like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, and awesome, club-worthy hair like Ronaldinho’s dreads or Freddy Ljungberg’s pink mohawk or David Beckham’s fauxhawk. They were associated with techno music and the other cool arts (the most famous commercial of the World Cup was directed by Terry Gilliam). At a time when American sports logos were seemingly competing to see which could be the most Budweiser-macho (check out the early-2000s versions of the Blue Jays or the Seahawks), soccer teams made even the advertisements on their synthetic-fiber shirts seem as elegant as the Bauhaus school. Faced with the Humvee aesthetic that characterized post-9/11 American sports, soccer was the way to go.
A year after coming home, I bought my first FIFA video game. I also went back to England, on a trip with my girlfriend, and made it a priority to come home with a proper soccer jersey for a European club. I ended up picking a Barcelona jersey, because I could get it cheaper (it was the old model of the shirt, is why). And that’s how I became a “Barcelona fan,” dutifully trying to care about the Champions League when they’re competing for the title (I can rarely stir up an interest in El Clásico or La Liga) and getting props from actual Barça fans on the streets of LA whenever I wear my now-faded jersey.
I bring this all up to show how halting and arbitrary my attempts to follow soccer regularly have been. A lot of American sports fans have had much more success: I see them on Twitter at 9 am on a Saturday, in agonies over the fortunes of Liverpool or Arsenal or Borussia Dortmund. Of course it makes sense, if you’re interested in watching world-class soccer, to watch the top-flight teams rather than your local MLS team. But this is going farther, actually becoming a fan of a team based in a city and country you’ve never lived in and hitching your emotions to that team. It’s an affectation I’ve never been able to pick up.
Understand, I’m not criticizing fan affectation. In the past, I’ve described all kinds of fan behavior, like doggedly following a losing team, as forms of affectation. Since sports fandom itself is by choice, almost any investment in it is bound to be, at least to start, an affectation, and juicing your interest in a league by attaching yourself emotionally to one of the teams is one of the more sensible affectations there is. I just don’t have the cable package or the network of fellow fans to sustain this one.
What’s different now is that I’ve stopped beating myself up for that fact. I used to feel like every sophisticated person needed a European soccer team in their life, like a public radio membership or a New Yorker subscription. Now, the amount of time I spent mooning over the surface of international soccer feels like a more unpleasant, self-flattering affectation, like clove cigarettes. Now I want to get into soccer for myself, not to project an image—as a sport, not just an aesthetic. I like soccer, and I’ve proven that I’m able to get wholeheartedly into games if I feel a connection to one of the teams. Finally, I accept that I’m never going to be able to form that connection to a team that plays eight hours ahead of me. It’s time to find something closer to home.
On choosing the LA Galaxy
But…how close? Can I actually be an LA fan? That would be something new.
I’ve always been a fan of Bay Area teams—the 49ers, the Warriors, the Giants. Granted, growing up in the East Bay I should have been an A’s fan, rather than the Giants fan that I became (at age 5 I liked the name “Giants” better than “Athletics,” which just reiterates how arbitrary all this is), but the A’s are my second-place team. Hell, I’ll even feel mild happiness when something good happens to the Sharks.
So when MLS started up, I assumed that I’d be a fan of the Bay Area franchise, the San Jose Earthquakes. And I was, in a purely passive way: I never watched (let alone attended, are you kidding me?) an Earthquakes game, never looked up a game result or checked their standings, never even registered when the MLS season was beginning or ending, never gave the team the slightest thought, but nevertheless considered the Earthquakes part of the suite of teams I was a “fan” of. They’re the Bay Area team! They even call themselves the Earthquakes!
As a corollary, I figured that, if there was one team in the league I was supposed to dislike, it was the LA Galaxy. This is partly based on the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, of course, but maybe more important was the Northern California-Southern California rivalry, which never felt keener than when I was 14 or 15 and had been to LA maybe once in my life. Berkeley was “the Athens of the West,” and that seemed to apply to the whole region: Chez Panisse, People’s Park, gay rights, unswerving liberalism. LA was traffic, Darryl Gates and Rodney King, Valley Girls and Encino Men, and just the root of all the worst elements of American culture. The rivalry went deep: in 1994 I got mad that the Northridge earthquake stole the glory of our big earthquake five years earlier.
But I’ve been living in the LA area for ten years this year, and LA proper for seven. And in that time, I’ve come to love Los Angeles, a city that is hard to appreciate on a short visit but reveals its advantages over time. In some ways, LA seems to be consciously building itself in a progressive direction, in exactly the areas where the Bay Area is slipping backwards: housing for the homeless, adequate mass transit. Most of all, I’ve come to realize that much of the Bay Area’s sneering at LA’s shallowness is, well, shallow; while San Francisco coasts on the legacy of Allan Ginsburg and rapidly transmutes into a bedroom community for Mountain View, LA (though surely sharing some of SF’s affordability problems) seems to have a young, vibrant culture. And since so much of that culture is based in LA’s diversity, particularly its Latin American diversity, soccer here feels like a match made in heaven. (Not to mention that San Jose’s status as a “Bay Area” city is … tenuous.)
I won’t ever be a Dodgers fan; there isn’t even any temptation to be one, because being a rival fan in enemy territory is actually fun (which I’ll have to blog about sometime). And the NFL can put as many teams here as it likes but I won’t ever care about any of them. But it seems contrary to my whole identity as a sports fan to deny myself a local team in the city where I may well spend the rest of my life: I’m laying down roots here, raising kids here. I’m becoming an Angeleno. Getting into LA’s soccer team seems like the perfect way to honor that.