—by Dave Hoyt
A team, built on star power and pushed forward on the belief of their own inevitable, never-ending popularity, suddenly starts to deflate. The newness wore off, the expectations built into the marketing were never met, and within two seasons attendance had been nearly cut in half - within four it had been nearly quartered. Familiarity breeds contempt, and once people grew accustomed to having the team around, they lost interest. What they swore was passion turned out to be just a passing fancy.
It's become a common trope for soccer outsiders to warn of the impending doom of MLS due to the demise of the NASL, specifically using the Cosmos as the fuse of destruction. Don Garber and the rest of MLS management have instituted a very conservative and steady approach to the growth of MLS, making most insiders believe a repeat of the NASL implosion is impossible. But have all the lessons been learned?
Much will be made of the rivalry between the Timbers and the Sounders this season. Already we see people haggling over the definitions of words such as "authentic", "manufactured", "customer", and "history". I can only tell you what I see.
Since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009, season ticket sales appear to have become the standard benchmark by which fans are supposed to be measured. It wasn't enough to have a good crowd, maybe even fill your stadium, and create an atmosphere that inspired your players to perform beyond their capabilities. Now you're not a real fan unless you plunk down plenty of money up front. I wouldn't blame you if you thought that was taking fandom out of the stands and into a boardroom.
Typical fan demands like reasonable ticket prices were replaced by justifying why your team closed off part of their stadium to artificially boost demand. The right to let individuals create their own game day experience was replaced by pride that everyone is wearing the same shirt and can chant along to one of the two chants being piped in through overhead speakers. A determination to keep the history of your club alive replaced by a rote recitation of trophies won or a steadfast denial that anything mattered pre-2009, depending on the argument.
Instead, fans are soothed, for the time being, by the team winning. Expectations were set when two of their first four signings were Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg. Now they are one of only two teams in the league to carry three Designated Players. Losing embarrassingly to the Timbers in their Charity Shield match in 2010 was mitigated by winning the US Open Cup. The Timbers were not invited to challenge for the Charity Shield in 2011. Maybe more embarrassingly, they publicly made known they felt they were due refunds after suffering the indignity of watching their team lose at home to a superior side. An utter inability to score goals at home have doomed their playoff chances.
So have they learned their lessons from NASL or are they setting themselves up for a similar fall? Listen to one of their supporters and you'll hear an endless stream of boasts about crowd size and minor trophies won. What you will strain to hear is talk about a budding, real culture. You'll rarely hear them talk about what they want to build for the future. You won't hear anything recognizing the accomplishments and history of the league and other clubs.
So when pundits talk about the rivalries between our clubs and the shared success of our launches, know that the real story lies in what's not being written. We built up our fans one by one, loving the club and making real contributions to who and what we are today. We will support our team win or lose. We will pay respect to those who came before us and those who didn't get the chance to be where we are today. We will always stay true to ourselves and each other. And that has made all the difference.