An era is a thing like mist. We tend to study it not by its margins but by the defined space in the middle of things, where its weight is made most real by its density. Where the gravity makes the most sense. We are a people made uncomfortable by the indecipherable margins of mist, so we focus on those concrete things we can understand. This is where I can see. This is where I cannot.
We do this too with age. What we are in growth and death is ancillary to the real meat of our middle years. As if the bookends are not the most valuable.
But where mist lingers at the edges haphazardly – where the era begins to to fade into picture and then where it begins to blink out like hazard lights burning off the last vestiges of a dying battery – those margins are not so easily examined. We see figures, shapes, vague outlines of things, but they dance on the periphery like the outline of a signal fire or our lost dead. There is no comfort in the not knowing.
These eras begin with soft, ill-defined edges and end with a doughy roundness that thumbs its nose at definition. The Middle Ages. The Renaissance. Disco. There are general beginnings. The sack of Rome, Petrarch scaling Mont Ventoux, David Mancuso. And there are general ends. The proliferation of the ad fantes movement, the Enlightenment, real music.
But there are so many factors draped over these eras and the thousands like them – like so much cloth – that make them indefinable by a single metric. Rome rose for so many reasons and fell for so many more. There is no answer because there are many answers. And there is a wider societal reaction to that which is either disappointment or revulsion or something in between. We are humans and so we are definers. Neat edges. In some sense we are all OCD.
There are shadows skulking in the mist surrounding MLS’s current iteration, what it is now compared to what it has been. Ghosts. And where we are going depends, feeds and is defined by where we have been.
For many years MLS was a league for old men. It is becoming something else. It is molting. It is becoming younger at its joints.
In 1336, Petrarch ascended Mont Ventoux in southern France. By many it is considered a major part of the beginning of the movement that would become the Renaissance. Petrarch claimed to have been the first person to climb a mountain simply for the view since Antiquity, which is almost certainly false, but his claim and his climb sparked admirers. For centuries the human spirit had been toil and strife and hard edges and parochialism. Petrarch, an Italian idealist, helped start a humanist movement designed partly to soften the edges and add mist.
What if we did things just to do them? Because we wanted to do them? Because they were pretty and good and sometimes that is enough for its own sake?
After he’d climbed, Petrarch wrote. And this is one of the things he wrote.
“And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”
This kind of inward focus was important for Petrarch. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we not challenge them more? And if we did, would we not see that some things worth doing are that way simply for the joy of pursuit? Simply because we are unafraid of the undefinable? Because the mist surrounding our eras is not only necessary, but vital?
We do and accomplish and strive not for the grind of life, Petrarch famously asserted, but because life is beautiful and to go about it otherwise would be destructive and reckless.
I think MLS is discovering this lesson in the same way every new thing steps from one skin into the next. And MLS is stepping through thin mist from an era governed by old players and into one decided by a younger generation. By beauty for its sake.
Earlier this fall, FC Dallas head man Oscar Pareja said this to Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus not long after he started five Homegrown players in a single game – which FC Dallas won over the future No. 2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
“When I started my own process in Colombia, I found coaches who believed a lot in the younger players. I was given the opportunity very early. I was a captain [at Independiente Medellín] at 20,” Pareja said. “I want to be the one who provides opportunities and believes in the young ones. Somebody needs to take the risk and I don’t mind to be the one.”
I see the peaks of Ventoux in this. A craggy summit and a man unafraid and mist creeping along its base.
FC Dallas probably represents the future of MLS. In a 2-1 playoff loss against the Seattle Sounders that was perhaps a bit harsh given the overall tenor of play, Pareja started nine players 25 or younger. There are lyres backing that statistic, and full orchestras behind Mauro Diaz and the rest.
— Ben Jata (@Ben_Jata) November 2, 2015
The question FC Dallas must answer, as will the rest of the teams who’ve built through bought youth like Fabian Castillo and developed youth like Wil Trapp, is whether and how long it can keep it. That in many ways will define how deep into the beginnings of a new era we are and how close the previous one is to its finality.
Even so, there was a sense of change about the Seattle-Dallas game. The Sounders are built in so many ways like a more moneyed version of MLS 1.0. They are the oldest team in the league with an average age pushing 30. They have bought DPs on the other side of that age divide as recently as this summer and have dealt with the accompanying effects of their injuries. They employ a 4-4-2 that was taken from a mid-90’s how-to USMNT manual.
And we got a sense of the change without really seeing it full stop because Seattle won. Shapes in the dark. Seattle’s two goalscorers were a 32-year-old shadow striker whose national team days are probably numbered and a 31-year-old wide midfielder whose nickname ‘The Austrian Beckham’ was widely abandoned more than a half decade ago.
FCD’s goal-scorer? An incendiary 23-year-old Colombian who can play and compete in any league on the planet tomorrow, fed by a 24-year-old Argentinian who will surpass every benchmark for a No. 10 Javi Morales ever set in this league. That is all provided he doesn’t leave for more heavily seeded land first.
FCD looked vital, young, scintillating. New. Other than. More importantly, FCD building a team this way on the cheap proved any team in MLS can follow its primrose path. Nobody in MLS has a lower overall payroll than FCD. They are perhaps the single most exciting team to watch in MLS.
It isn’t just FCD. The Red Bulls have largely mismanaged their well-stocked academy for years, but under the last two management regimes they’ve finally begun bringing that talent to bear. They won the Supporter’s Shield this year with a Homegrown center back and a younger average roster than they’ve ever had. The Whitecaps finished second in the West with Manneh and Teibert and Koffie and Techera and did I mention Manneh. The Timbers’ organizational ethos, at least in an attacking sense, tends to lean young. They were third in the West. Giovinco is 28, which is not young but is not old and he is maybe the best DP purchase in MLS history.
The point is that age in MLS is no longer the way of things. It is increasingly becoming a business practice as much as a shrewd soccer move. The LA Galaxy’s purchase of the 35-year-old Steven Gerrard and NYCFC’s double signing of 36-plus midfielders Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo would just five years ago have been viewed as necessary evils by most. Their playing ability mitigates the rest. They’d make it. The league could hold them.
Now? I am less sure of that than I have ever been. Players like Pirlo will display quality everywhere, but to watch Gerrard stalk aimlessly through the final month of the Galaxy’s season was a pain inflicted by something deeper, cutting into the heart of what the league is with surgical precision. Why did the Galaxy sign him? Why is he here, now, when there are Castillos and Cerens and Morales’s waiting to be plucked from higher branches? What are we doing?
The league is determining the answer for us, but it is not there yet. We are still groping through the final throes of an older mist, an antique era, while a younger one blows in from the south and the east and the west. As yet undefinable. Older teams in older molds still cleave to the league’s ancient core in hopes the Parejas and Berhalters and Heaths aren’t right about the youthening of MLS. That the league is still won in three-year windows that snap shut immediately and require a total roster overhaul again and again and again. That maybe we don’t have to do that anymore. That the beleaguered blood of old infusions is no longer necessary.
There are teams unveiling a way forward like some torero pulling a bull towards his flashing cape. It is youth, academies, deeper scouting networks in under-served markets. Work. In other words, the dirty, seemingly purposeless trek to the top of Ventoux. If it feels like a travail of vanity at the time, our forebears will thank us and our descendants will know no different.
I, for one, look forward to the coming of the latter mists. At some point my hope for the league is that we will all climb with Petrarch.