Well, one of the difficulties understanding US soccer is its counter-intuitive nature and byzantine bureaucracy. The teams in MLS are not clubs or in any way independent of the league itself. The teams in Major League Soccer are brands of Major League Soccer. Because this is the case, when you watch LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Houston Dynamo, or New York Red Bulls you aren’t just watching the team, you are supporting the league itself. You can debate the differences between a Fusion, Focus, Taurus, Mustang, or F-150, you can link your personal identity to these different brands of automobile but no matter what, you’re supporting Ford first and foremost. So what’s good for the league is good for its brands. MLS is a top-down organization. Your loyalty is first to the league, then to whatever brand you prefer within it. There is a constant and unnecessary tension here.
Don’t misunderstand me, I harbor no hostility to MLS. But I am very critical of it. The heart of my criticism is that I refuse to support leagues or pit one league against another. I support teams not leagues. Teams, not brands. Pitting one league against another is futile, disingenuous, and needlessly divisive. I love the idea of having a slew of teams to constantly be monitoring, supporting, watching, and discussing.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the past couple of years has been the genuine growth of the game, meaning a vast proliferation of teams at the grassroots level. I live 6+ hours from the nearest MLS cities, yet Memphis City, St. Louis FC, Louisville City, Indy Eleven, and Nashville FC are all roughly three hours from where I live. This means I have more opportunity to see soccer via the second (NASL), third (USL), and fourth divisions (NPSL). These are teams that have nurtured a brilliant fan day experience as well as quality on the pitch on their own terms. The most exciting and highest quality soccer that can be experienced by the most number of people is developing bottom-up.
The radical passion of a team like Detroit City (who just raised nearly a million dollars to renovate a new ground for the amateur team), the heady rise of Sacramento Republic from non-existence to immediate on the field success forcing it into every serious conversation about expansion, the tenacity of soccer fans in Minnesota refusing to let its professional team die, and the myriad other brilliant soccer stories out there (Birmingham Hammers, Chattanooga FC, Nashville FC, the Switchbacks of Colorado Springs, the movement to bring a second pro team to the Second City of Chicago, or PSA Elite in California) are all testaments to just how dedicated fans of the sport are.
These fans are building soccer in the United States, brick by brick, kick by kick, and have only a tangential interest in the economic machinations of MLS. These fans want the best level of soccer that they can craft by themselves and for themselves.
To wit, I’d like to look at one team in particular, Minneapolis City SC, one of the newest teams in the nation.
Alphabet soup. The American soccer landscape is a swirl of letters, endless acronyms: MLS, NASL, USL, PDL, NPSL. Add to all this the new leagues that have emerged in the last few years, the long established regional leagues, and indoor/futsal leagues: PLA (Premier League of America), APL (American Premier League), UPSL (United Premier Soccer League), EPLWA (Evergreen Premier League), MLF (Major League Futsal), and MASL (Major Arena Soccer League). Point is, there has been soccer everywhere for a long time. Just look.
The question becomes, what is worth watching? The easy answer is ‘Support your local team.’ But, as this proliferation of leagues and thus teams demonstrate, what team is that exactly? The top five leagues (MLS, NASL, USL, PDL, NPSL) fight for market share as they disparage and undermine each other. Atlanta had a professional team, Atlanta Silverbacks, but that didn’t matter to MLS when it launched its brand in Atlanta that it named sans-irony Atlanta United. But NASL has decided that larger markets need competition and have encouraged a new team to arise in Chicago, a longtime MLS stronghold with Chicago Fire. The USL and NASL are currently in a head-to-head scuffle over Oklahoma (Oklahoma Energy vs Rayo OKC) for some unknown reason; San Antonio decided to self-relegate to the 3rd tier from 2nd because it believed that would be a smoother route to MLS; and MLS’s attempt to do anything in Miami has utterly failed while the NASL has quietly prepared to field a decent looking team in a couple months.
Quagmire or explosion of diversity and opportunity? It depends on your point of view. In all this comes the Premier League of America and its eleven teams successfully covering the entirety of the proper Midwest.
The PLA, in which Minneapolis City SC belongs, grows out of Michigan (of all places) but has quietly created a space highlighting regional, youth, and developmental talent. How so?
According to Nate Stovall, president and commissioner of the league as well as director of player personnel for Toledo United, the PLA “is competing on the field and in recruiting for the top players from across the country” with fellow 4th tier leagues the PDL (Premier Development League) and NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). The addition of the PLA to the fourth tier strengthens the foundation of US/Canadian soccer by continuing “to give players another platform to showcase their skills.” Simply put, players get better the more they can play. More soccer benefits everyone.
A local rivalry between Minneapolis City and Minnesota United is potentially glorious. Playing against the Milwaukee Bavarians taps into the Twin Cities disdain for eastern Wisconsin. While taking on RWB Aria out of Chicagoland makes for a cities of the north rivalry that actually matters. Competitively, the PLA and MCSC is fourth tier amateur/semipro but this is the chance to see local boys play. You get to see the top talent in the area come home from college to continue playing in the NCAA ‘off season’ (it’s unfortunate that the NCAA has been willfully blind to how it’s hamstringing collegiate players but that’s a post for another time).
Then comes the most practical aspect, cost. Entry into the Premier League of America is “significantly less than the PDL without all the travel. Slightly less than NPSL without all the travel.” It’s too easy as a fan to forget just how much travel costs can hamstring a team. In fact, not that long ago a player was traded between a Texas club and a Florida club in the second division just to cover hotel accommodations. Laugh all you want. Do the math, it adds up and is serious money. As Sindt points out,
“It’s easy to forget just how isolated Minneapolis-St Paul is which means that we need to be really thoughtful about our league choice and its travel burden. At the moment, though we have heard about attempts to revive the NPSL Central, it doesn’t exist. That means that if we had joined the NPSL our nearest opponent would be in Indiana and that doesn’t make any sense financially or competitively.”
However, more than any other aspect of the game, Minneapolis City is a means for Minnesota players to stay sharp, to grow, and to gain the experience necessary to make their skill something they can build into a career while they they still have the wherewithal to do so. Sindt again,
“Minnesota has been producing more and more Division 1-caliber players, which is great, but they all play elsewhere since there are no D1 programs or even a dollar of soccer scholarship money available in Minnesota. Then, in the summers, there isn’t a really high level option for them here. We have a great men’s league set-up in town, but if you’re, say, playing at a powerhouse program like UCLA or Northwestern and you tell your coach that you are going to play in the Minnesota men’s league…well, let’s just say that the conversation won’t go well.”
Creating and building up local soccer is, first and foremost, about opportunity. The fact that college players from UCLA, Northwestern, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Messiah College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and elsewhere can come home–HOME–and still play competitively to enhance their skill and experience only bodes well for US soccer.
Couple this with the team’s commitment to inclusive supporter input and you have a brilliant cocktail. What do I mean by ‘inclusive supporter input’? Essentially, a variation on fan ownership. One that goes beyond the shallow Green Bay Packer style money grab, “Minneapolis City is a non-profit, which means that no “owner” can financially benefit from the sale. That’s a feature, not a bug. We see this club as run for the community, by the community–forever.” This is a bold move. One that demands of its supporters active involvement. A fairweather Mpls City supporter there is not, “we ask more of our members than just turn up at games and buy merchandise. We are asking them to get involved…we are asking them to get involved in the day-to-day.” Doing so creates a symbiotic relationship wherein the club’s performance on the pitch is intimately tied with the commitment of the supporters not just on the sidelines but ‘behind closed doors.’ The simple fact is, as Sindt points out,
“We become stronger when people feel ownership, when they are putting their own time into building the club, and when we have a lot of people involved in charting the course forward. All too often, we’ve seen mistakes made when club ownership/management gets disconnected from the community. Broad ownership and a broad voice means that we can be the right club for Minneapolis now and as Minneapolis changes.”
Think about that. Really dwell on it. Is your team as interested in you as this? An institutional or organizational attitude like this grows out of the American version of supporter ownership. This attitude sees the relationship between supporters and club as intimate and complimentary, not adversarial or sycophantic. David Baker of MCSC’s supporters group The Citizens states it simply, “Supporters are essential to the survival of a club so it makes sense for them to have a say in how their team is run.”
Following Minneapolis City means following Minnesota United Reserves means following Minnesota United means not just following the North American Soccer League but getting into or committed to Major League Soccer. Engaging these teams makes a fan (casual, neutral, or supporter) have to draw a line from the amateur fourth tier to the highest professional tier. This is why supporting teams matter more than supporting leagues. This is why bottom-up will always be more productive and authentic than top-down.
Minneapolis City SC is a sleek looking club with savvy supporters that back not just the team but all soccer in the Twin Cities and Minnesota. They have love enough for all.
This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons Rachel Racicot and Tyler Whitesides.