In case you missed it amid the looming headlines of Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar or Radford University clinching an NCAA tournament bid on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the new Los Angeles Football Club, or LAFC, played ─ and won ─ its first game. A 1-0 road win in a tough venue against the defending Western Conference Champion Seattle Sounders, no less, was an impressive start for the new franchise.
After the failure of Chivas USA, the previous LA soccer franchise to share the city with the Galaxy, many MLS fans are hoping for this new team to bring a stronger level of competition into the league.
Back in 2016, LAFC was announced by its ownership group as a team that would “unite the world’s city through the world’s game.” Peter Guber, the executive chairman of the franchise ─ and also part-owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Dodgers ─ was introduced as a key figure with knowledge about “world class entertainment, about world class branding,” setting up lofty expectations for the club.
And while success in Hollywood certainly is an avenue toward building popularity, if American soccer really wants to get to the level of “world class” it will quickly realize that it will need far more than a successful new club.
The best comparison I can give is the United States’ view of soccer in Europe. Far too many times, I have heard people criticize the German Bundesliga and the French Ligue 1 because Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, are “too good,” so the level of competition isn’t worth the time of fans in the United States.
These same Americans spend their Saturday mornings watching the English Premier League ─ arguably more competitive domestically but less so on an international scale, with the last English winner of the UEFA Champions League coming in 2012. I would argue, that on any given match day, a midtier German or French team could certainly take down a midtier English team, and these common American explanations are actually given because the Premier League is simply the best marketed toward the United States.
But even if the American argument about soccer’s lack of popularity is given credence, the question still remains how the entire MLS ─ let alone LAFC ─ is supposed to elevate itself to world-class quality in a country without a heavy soccer following.
It’s a catch-22. The sport needs to be popular ─ and have lots of money involved ─ for the next generation of America’s best young athletes to be interested, yet the United States won’t catch on to the world’s game until every fourth year comes around for the World Cup.
Furthermore, it appears the sport won’t necessarily increase in popularity until the United States puts forth a competitive showing on the international stage. After bowing out in the round of 16 in a winnable game against Belgium in 2014 and then not qualifying for the 2018 event, the conundrum seems easier for American sports fans to avoid rather than admitting their insufficiency on a world stage. Surely it seems easier on the ego of the world superpower to express disinterest over inadequacy …
Yet this contradicts all of the historical American rhetoric about being a nation that fights when presented with adversity. And don’t give me any of the “Americans aren’t good at soccer” nonsense, because considering America’s performance in other sports on an international level, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find 11 players that can at least qualify.
To me, something about the United States not being able to do what the rest of the world has defined as the world’s most popular sport has always felt wrong, and honestly a bit un-American. I desperately hope that LAFC helps bring the MLS and United States soccer to new heights, but unfortunately, neither the club, nor columns like these are likely to effect that change.
That change starts from within.