We Need to Talk About Soccer…

photo credit Roscoe Myrick

Despite some underwhelming performances thus far, spirits remained high leading into the third straight home game for the Timbers 2. A glorious spring afternoon, following a morale boosting victory for the first team and delightful debut of a third kit (I mean… look at that beauty) all had spirits on the bluff at a season high.

The mood was only bouyed by the first victory of the season. Unsurprisingly it was through a goal provided by the, thus far bafflingly underused, 2015 USL Rookie of the Year Kharlton Belmar. An otherwise unspectacular game had left the Portland soccer obsessives looking to complete a clean sweep by turning their vociferous support to the Thorns. A support that was duly matched with another win. Nine points from the three games. A perfect weekend for those avid soccer followers in the Rose City.

Yet something didn’t sit quite right from the experience at Merlo Field. An unfamiliar buzz enveloped the whole game. The Timbers Army were there calling on their usual arsenal of chants, plus the, somewhat refreshingly commonplace at Timbers 2 games, newer songs added to the repertoire (long overdue at Providence Park). But more exciting than that, they had to fight for their supremacy.

Sacramento Republic brought with them a dedicated crowd, replete with the typical armory of flags and drums. They gave a great account of themselves on Sunday and went toe to toe with the, generally unchallenged, locals.

Those keeping an eye on the, seemingly never ending, list of proposed expansion franchises looking to join the ranks of the all mighty MLS should be well aware of the Republic. A well supported team on the rise, they are everything Don Garber and his board are looking for in a new Division One club; they can pay the entrance fee.

The common opinion from the casual fan of soccer in North America is that the region is divided into two camps; those big enough to be a part of Major League Soccer and those desperate to be included. We, of a Portland Timbers persuasion, see having a team to follow on the biggest stage our nation can offer as a blessing. The passionate fans of a new team from Sacramento see themselves as inadequate (at least those that marched through the city streets to raise the issue) until they reach the same. Both sides of the divide are missing the point entirely.

We are being duped.

Promotion and relegation are fundamental aspects of the worldwide game of soccer. More than that they are the lifeblood to the community natured spirit of the sport. A game that has reached every corner of the globe has its roots in organically grown clubs forming and joining an open league system.

With the room to improve their fortunes, both on and off the pitch, a free market is the fairest way to establish true competition for any club. By denying the opportunity to reap the financial and sporting rewards a league that operates behind closed doors dooms organizations to failure and takes away the very reason for sport to exist in the first place.

Take the attendances of new USL side FC Cincinnati this weekend totaling over 20,000 people and compare it to scenes from both Colorado and Dallas this week. Whilst they may be a new franchise this is just one indicator of the thirst for the game in this part of the world. A thirst that would surely benefit from supporters knowing that they were buying into (emotionally not financially) a system that rewarded success. From the balance sheets to the field, success should not be a means to a club putting itself in the best possible light to be cherry picked to join an exclusive party. It should be the very essence of the game. Period.

Close league systems have a history of failure. Open systems are, essentially by definition, indestructible. If a team, financially, falls into complete disrepair it is their responsibility. If they ultimately collapse they return from the ashes under new ownership and start again from the very bottom.

On top of the fact that the current system is unfair on clubs attempting to compete it also fails to serve the basic needs of the average fan. Unlike those more inclined to following the major US sports soccer has a very real and ever increasingly accessible competition from abroad. Add to the fact that the soccer we can all watch from the major European leagues is of a far higher standard, the drama of promotion and relegation is an engaging aspect of the very fabric of those cultures. The stakes are higher. If a club is demoted the route back to the top table seems daunting and perilous. It means more. By dropping down a division a community feels a sense of despair. It offers hope. A cycle of poor performances and mismanagement at all levels can receive a fresh start. It inspires. Truly engaging narratives can only be formed in an open market.

Imagine if Leicester had simply been invited into a league with a salary cap and subsequently won the title (although from this Tottenham fan, let’s hope not). Would that mean as much? What of the loss of giants Aston Villa for the first time since the English Premier League’s inception? Would the disappointment of a loyal fan base be felt so deeply if their atrocious campaign had simply led to them being cut adrift from a league they would once again find themselves competing in the next season with no true accountability or consequences? Look at the rise, ex nihilo, of AFC Wimbledon. As a club created out of the anger from fans following the move of their team fifty six miles away to Milton Keynes they have risen from the ninth tier of the English footballing pyramid to the fourth since their birth in 2002 (and still capable of moving up again this season to the third). A drop in quality of the football on show is barely a factor in comparison to the rewards those fans must be reaping for their loyalty and passion.

Those are merely a few examples of the stories from the English game. There are innumerable other examples, and nations, to point to when looking for evidence of the complexity and richness of what is possible when you allow true competition.

Seeing such a fantastic support from those diehard Sacramento supporters only heightened, in my eyes, the sense of injustice that the game has made the status quo in the US and Canada. A club with that backing and identity should focus its efforts, not on trying to become part of the furniture, but redesigning the whole living space. One which, rather than allowing a select few to luxuriate in a house built on sand, can more than comfortably provide comfort and shelter for the masses on a sustainable foundation.

For a better game, for better clubs, better fans North America needs promotion and relegation. It is the global game of the people and we should stand up for what is right and in line with the principles found all over the world of Corinthian ideals only possible in an open market system.

It is our game. No one has the right to take it from us or have it served to us on our terms. It is our responsibility.

Thomas Kean

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