The allure of the lower leagues.

I am a soccer fan and I am enamored with soccer history, particularly American soccer history, and that is what led me to the lower leagues.

I started playing soccer when I was young, four or five, and have played it all my life though it fit alongside other sports as well. I played FIFA. I went to an elite, liberal college. I did my semester in Europe. I hit all the markers of an American soccer fan of my generation.

In the beginning I was into MLS, though there wasn’t a team in my state. Still, I watched games on TV and made sure to see a game when I was in town: Chicago, Kansas City, New England, Los Angeles and so on. I followed along on Twitter and Reddit.

I wish I hadn’t.

The fans would sing all game, sure, but without any connection to the game itself. How could it? The capos didn’t even face the field, though some of them have been to Europe and so they know things.

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This guy.

The culture was hollow, aping something else, a strange sort of “football supporter” cosplay where people went to games to sing when they were told and talked about their “club” as though it was in some way different than the NFL or MLB team in their town. As if it was more than artifice.

Maybe it takes time for things to become more than artifice. Maybe, like a home, it needs to be lived in a while, the furniture re-arranged a few times, the paint on the wall fading over the year, before it feels like something real. Maybe.

MLS has done a good job of marketing the league, especially to casual and emerging fans, but it has gone out of its way to distance itself from American soccer history. It makes sense given the shadow cast by the failure of the NASL, but MLS acts like soccer started in 1998. That is a pity because there is a depth and richness to American soccer, and tradition and history are hugely valued by fans. By me.

Things have started to change. Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps harken back to NASL days and Minnesota United supporters, at least the old guard, seem keen on retaining the memories of the Thunder days. Yet, despite moves in the right direction, the MLS world is a world of billionaire owners and massive entry fees and drafts and aging stars, of feting and courting league executives,and expansion intrigue. Manufactured. Packaged. Corporatized. It’s like the NFL with a differently shaped ball.

There is no authenticity.

I found the lower leagues when I went looking for authenticity, when I went off to Google to find the oldest continually-run soccer club in America actually. I ran into Croatian Eagles from Milwaukee, founded in 1922 and arch-rivals with Bavarian Soccer Club in Milwaukee, founded in 1929. There was tremendous depth in their history, their rivals, their national amateur titles, their friendlies with Bayern Munich, Stuttgart, etc and the fact that almost 100 years from their founding there were thriving, authentic soccer clubs.

Maybe it’s the Minnesotan in me, but I’ve seen enough players come to play for a Minnesota team only because they were paid do so and hate it here that there was something special to see guys playing for their hometown club for nothing more than club pride and love of the game.

It wasn’t sport as spectacle, as entertainment, as rich guy’s plaything. It was real. It was weird. It was magic.

Both clubs played in the Premier League of America (PLA), a fantastically interesting regional league with a mix of historic “culture clubs” and newer clubs. That led me to my local lower league club Minneapolis City, who for 2017 moved to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).

Nobody was in it for the money because there was no money.

Everyone was local because nobody could afford not to be.

You knew people by name because there weren’t thousands of them, you knew the people running the club because they were also doing the dirty work and they had a day job and you saw just how much winning and losing and staying in business meant to everyone. Minneapolis City is a strange club. I still don’t entirely get them. But they are regular people with regular incomes trying the impossible and with that, with the historic clubs and with the explosive growth of the Chattanooga’s and Detroit City’s and Stockade’s I was completely hooked.

So here we are today.

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One thought on “The allure of the lower leagues.

  1. I like a lot of the points made in the article, and I do wish people would support their small local teams more. There is a closeness you get with an NPSL team you don’t get with an MLS team. You can talk with the players and get involved in it much more, and the fans are there because they love soccer not because of what league the team plays in.

    But there are really two groups of fans. People who will go and watch lower level soccer because it’s local and they want that closeness, and people who want to see professional soccer and participate in the highest level. There are certainly merits to both. I think a lot of fans look at MLS through an EPL lens and choose not to support it simply because there isn’t promotion/relegation. But the EPL is dominated by “clubs” with billionaire owners that are no less corporate or manufactured than MLS teams.

    I find the mention of the Milwaukee teams curious because neither the Croatians nor the Bavarians are actually interested in building a supporter culture or drawing fans. The Bavarians simply wanted a cheaper league than the NPSL to play in and the Croatians followed suit. The Bavarians spent $7 million on a new artificial turf field and yet have almost no stands. It’s simply a youth soccer club with a nice field. The same could be said for the Madison 56ers, one of the founding members of the NPSL but who now play in the PLA because it’s cheaper. If we had pro/rel here I don’t think these teams would have any interest in moving up. The Bavarians gave up their NPSL license and then we got the Milwaukee Torrent, a professional team that is actually looking to build a supporter culture and move up.

    American fans are really split, I think, between people who like the supporter group and “club” aspect of soccer, and those who like having a team in professional league with parity akin to the NFL.

    Liked by 1 person

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