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MLS and its personality problem

Written by Will Parchman


David Beckham’s arrival stateside was notable, but not for one of the reasons typically elucidated en masse. He was not in his playing prime, his feet robbed of their buoyancy by the weight of time. Neither was he capable of swinging the needle of soccer fandom on his own. He may have been inside the palm of the handful of the world’s best at one moment, but by the time he arrived in L.A. he was merely Among The Very Good Ones. An unbelievable set piece taker and a sulking Ent during the run of play.

We know this now.

What some shielded at the time but now wholeheartedly acknowledge was that Beckham’s true value was merely himself. His mannerisms, his thin, warbly accent, his slowly fading European memories, the knowledge that he’d been inside the Bernabeu, knew Alex Ferguson, had his vacations covered by magazines and newspapers. And yes, his damned hair and his damned face. In short, his personality. You cared about him, whether you loved him or loathed him or landed somewhere in between. You had opinions.

The package MLS bought included his ability on the field – without it, he’d have just been another underwear model – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as enticing without all his delightful humanness. It wouldn’t have birthed an entire addendum to the MLS rulebook.

Beckham also did something else. He pried open our eyes, domestically anyway, to a reality MLS had never really known – the true cult of international personality. Regardless of geography, sporting leagues are self-contained worlds with their own orbits and caste system. But the binding glue are the stories and personalities that populate its ground. There had been some great personalities in MLS, but these were regional names, not even national ones. Beckham was our personality Rubicon. We can never go back.

MLS is not without these stories. Steven Lenhart as the irrepressible foil. Bruce Arena as the league’s cantankerous know-it-all grandpa. The Ragers in Cascadia. Mike Magee’s social media wins. These all exist. But in a lot of ways, they’re merely putty scraped over a larger issue. The league needs more personality. It needs more individual weirdos and flair-filled personalities who push the needle. There aren’t enough.

The real trouble is not that American athletes aren’t interesting enough. Our own social sporting experiment presided over by Stephen A. Smith, this time over NFL running back Ray Rice, proves that as well as anything. We spent the better part of a weekend examining the private life of a running back, determining the balance of justice on our own and then unleashing a torrent on Smith when he said something impossibly stupid. This spoke to a wider thirst. Why else?

So if that isn’t the problem, then what is it? Unfortunately, it may be an excess of humility.

Hear me out here. I realize the initial reaction can be harsh. Your trap’s jagged maw just clenched tight over my neck – “Too much humility?” But listen. Soccer’s second-tier sporting status in the U.S. has historically forced its players to operate underneath the yoke of more highly-recruited, high profile players from other sports. The amount of scrutiny poured on a top-ranked high school basketball recruit is so incredibly different than a top-ranked soccer recruit, and the players feel that pressure.

In some respects, this creates an expectation. For a basketball player like Andrew Wiggins, he can roll his shoulders back and walk with a bit of a knowing swagger. He’s an important figure because we’ve determined that fact as a populace. RSL’s Corey Baird is the top-ranked player for the 2014 class who’s headed to college and not to play professionally. Who knows Baird? Abu Danladi is the Gatorade High School Player of the Year. Who knows Danladi? This anonymity breeds humility in excess. Baird isn’t walking with a tilt. Even Rubio Rubin, our top-ranked player in the class overall, operates in relative anonymity among Americans. Nobody recognizes him at the mall. In restaurants. On practice fields. Outsize personality comes harder this way.

In this respect, the DP rule is notable. Let me first direct to back to a quote offered by Jurgen Klinsmann to the New York Times before the World Cup.

 “Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

In many cases, MLS is importing a high-visibility player not on the electricity of his color now but on the once-vibrant paint that’s begun to peel and weather and crack off the wall. We know this. The tropes about the league’s image as a retirement league are beyond gauche by now. But what often gets tilled back under the ground is that by making these moves, the league – shrewdly, I might add – is injecting the easiest source of personality possible into its bloodstream. It’s readymade. Personality doesn’t age.

Frank Lampard is towing an international cachet cultivated by years of front-and-center successes and failures, both on the field and off. Hell, he taunted Americans stranded in London after 9/11. Craft your banners, South Ward. Kaka was one of the most high-priced flops in world soccer history in Madrid. David Villa was front-and-center for the Tiki Taka revolution. He’s also recorded a song. Weirdly. On their own, most of each of these players’ quibbles are relatively trivial. Piled on year after year, they create a breathing mosaic that draws us back to games and invites story lines.

The stories that link leagues like the NBA and the NFL and MLB are largely what sustain them as successful enterprises. It goes without saying that these are offshoots of the talent, but LeBron’s decisions and the Wise Ol’ Spurs and Donald Sterling and Seattle losing to Oklahoma City creates this tapestry that mimics the best Hollywood can produce. This is entertainment, after all. The good and the bad.

As mentioned, MLS has story lines. Many of them are fun to follow. But they’re buried, and often far too nuanced and subtle for a national audience. Benny Feilhaber poking Simon Borg or the rugby grudge matches put on by Vancouver and FCD or Caleb Porter just generally staring holes through things. Niches. In a lot of ways, MLS is very much a “head down, go about your business” league. There’s nothing disastrous about that, but it’s dragged out into the light when these players with international profiles are introduced to the league. MLS needs more oddballs and muckrakers and villains and outspoken loudspeakers. I hate to say this, but Rafa Marquez was a hell of a thing.

To the cynical mind, this is symptomatic of the league’s propensity to throw high-priced DPs at thin rosters. In a world where perception sways minds, will Kaka really help? And Lampard? But to the less hardened among us, these are stopgap measures while the stent props open the young artery and the trained professionals can operate. These injections of international personality are defib paddles while the development apparatus leeches onto the current social climate and produces young players with their fingers on the pulse of the country.

Some of this is out of the league’s hands. At 18 years old, MLS is still very much a teenager. The league will continue to accrue stories and players and bizarre turns as it continues to mature. That much is inevitable. Hopefully its gradual rise in popularity wipes off some of the excess humility and breeds more players who legitimately expect the league to be tops in America. Whether it gets there or not. That kind of irrationality is good, sometimes.

MLS is a good league. It’s an improving league. But in a lot of ways, it’s still a niche league – dare I say a hipster league? – with a league-wide personality that tends to pander more to micro communities of superfans. The more MLS broadens its scope to bring in more eyebrow-raising personas, the more the league begins to plunge into the living rooms of the average fan, which is the league’s next growth step. For now, adding these European cortisone shots helps, whatever the international perception.

Eventually, with the aid of the game’s rise in both popularity and vigor here, we’ll be producing our own larger-than-life personalities. Our own Zlatans. And that day can’t come soon enough.

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