"WE NEED to be more important. We need to have more credibility." The words of MLS commissioner Don Garber. And they are true enough - so true that they add up to The Great Soccer Platitude
Soccer's comparative lack of importance when set alongside the other major pro sports - baseball, American football, ice hockey and basketball - is at the core of its struggle for acceptance in the USA.
The not unreasonable hope is that time will take care of that problem. As the sport grows among kids-and it is arguably the leading participant sport at that level - logic says that this country's future adults will be much more familiar with, and more receptive to the sport.
So goes the accepted wisdom. There has, however, been a glitch in the process. The great US soccer youth boom started in the 1970s. Already, by 1981 the total of under-19 boys and girls playing had reached two million. So, here we are 22 years later, and the question needs to be asked: where is that huge group now?
It's easy to come up with an answer. If those people became fans and wanted to follow pro Soccer, they could do it only until 1984. That was when the North American Soccer League collapsed.
The vacuum lasted for 12 years. So maybe that generation lost interest, turned to other things. It's quite possible. There's never any shortage, in the USA, of activities and entertainments clamouring to get hold of the leisure dollar.
Besides, maybe that generation wasn't soccer savvy enough. They went to NASL games, but what else did they know? The international game was largely a closed book because there was virtually no soccer on television. On top of that, the performances of the national team throughout the 1970s and 1980s were embarrassingly feeble, so there wasn't even a patriotic handle to grasp.
Things have moved onwards and, it seems, upwards. The new US soccer fans are pretty sophisticated in the ways of global soccer. The number of games available on television - terrestrial, cable, dish - is more than any one person can cope with (GolTV, a soccer-only channel, has recently arrived), while the world's soccer powers now see marketing opportunities in the States.
The vastly-trumpeted Manchester United circus (albeit without shirt-seller supreme David Beckham) has visited the USA this summer and played to sell-out crowds. And the nomadic Italian Supercup (in Libya last year) descended on New York in August.
The top Mexican cubs love to play exhibition games in the USA, particularly in Los Angeles, where crowds of over 70,000 are pretty much guaranteed.
Add in the fact that the United States had a pretty good World Cup in Korea and are now ranked 10th in the world (ahead of Italy!) by FIFA, and the fan is likely to have a much stronger grounding in the game than did his counterpart of 20 years ago.
But if the future looks bright, the present is where the problems lie. Commissioner Garber's words about becoming "more important" betray the frustration felt at all levels of the game in the USA.
Garber says there are 50 million players in the country. This has to be an absurdly inflated number, but even half that figure is a formidable total. How is something that big unable to gain the attention, never mind the respect of the mainstream American media? It gets even more baffling when you realise that a huge percentage of those players are from white, middle-class, suburban families.
American soccer has only itself to blame for this damaging failure. The culprit is not so much MLS, or its predecessor NASL, as the governing body, United States Soccer Federation. The USSF has never made any attempt to mobilise and organise this massive constituency, and have it work systematically as a pressure group on the local and national scene.
Soccer's weakness in this area is internal, but far too often the outside world is blamed. There are those who can find no other explanation for this anomaly than to cry foul and accuse the media of a conspiracy to kill off the sport. This is highly unlikely. But there is enough evidence of an almost pathological dislike of the sport among many American journalists.
A number of columnists, evidently irritated by soccer's refusal to go away, regularly savage it.
These people speak with awesome certainty for the whole country - "Americans don't want soccer"- and back up their assertion with pseudo-scientific hogwash about Americans only appreciating "hand-eye coordination in their sports. The shrill and xenophobic nature of these attacks suggests that the writers are worried. They fear soccer - heaven knows why; they find they can't ignore it, so they trash it.
Yes, there are all those games on TV - but only a handful are on the main networks. Hardly any American newspapers have full-time soccer writers. Coverage, in short, is grudging, often ill-informed and swamped by baseball or gridiron stories.
Garber needs to tread carefully when the matter of TV comes up. Truth to tell, the MLS ratings on ESPN are poor. Very poor. In an interview E with the Oneonta Daily Star, Garber explained, with smooth marketing talk, why the ratings were not as bad as they looked. "Today, it's less a matter of ratings as much as the potency of the people watching," he said. "And we have a very, very important core of people, young people from 18 to 35 years old, that watch our games. That demographic is very desirable for advertisers. We also have a very ethnic audience, and that audience is also very important for advertisers."
For sure, the ethnic audience factor is increasingly important. At the beginning of the year, the US government announced that the number of made them, for the first time, the largest minority group, ahead of the 36 million blacks. That huge total demands attention. A population approximately equal to that of Argentina or Colombia. Greater than the combined populations of Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia.
Of vital interest to Garber and US soccer in general is the news that two-thirds of the Hispanics are of Mexican origin, and therefore presumably highly soccer-susceptible. Yet the matter of integrating the Hispanics into the American soccer scene remains dismayingly incomplete. Consider the following:
For six years MLS had a Game of the Week telecast with one of the main Spanish-language television networks. In 2002 that outlet was lost when Telemundo refused to renew, saying its viewing figures indicated that MLS was not an attraction for Hispanic fans.
MLS employs 10 head coaches, plus 37 assistant coaches. Only three Hispanics figure in that total, none of them a head coach.
MLS runs a nationwide network of summer soccer camps for kids aged six to 18. More than 500 coaches are employed - and nearly 90 per cent of those are British, actively recruited in England and imported for the summer.
This is a tricky area for Garber and MLS. The kids of those wealthy white suburban families are an obvious target, but that is a long-term aim. For immediate support - and MLS would dearly love to increase its 15,000 average attendance (a questionable figure anyway) – the Hispanic fans are a more credible option
But Hispanic fans like Hispanic players and Hispanic-style soccer. MLS gives them too little of both. It is also finding that its new-found energy to build soccer stadiums-a huge step in the right direction - doesn't always work well for Hispanic fans. Those fans tend to be working class, inner-city dwellers. The new stadiums are built where land is cheap – out in the suburbs, often way out. Dallas Burn's switch from the centrally-located Cotton Bowl to a temporary home in suburban Dragon stadium has resulted in attendances slumping from 13,000 to under 7,000 per game - with a large part of the missing 6,000 being Hispanic fans.
A new, soccer-specific home is being built for Burn – but again it is in an area, the city of Frisco 25 miles north of Dallas, that may well not be ideal for Hispanic fans. A similar problem may yet affect Los Angeles Galaxy, with their switch from the Rose Bowl to the state-of-the-art Home Depot Center, just opened in suburban Carson, California.
An enigma for Garber to wrestle with the League's essential move to build soccer stadiums, a move that will greatly help the push for more importance and more credibility, may at the same time estrange it from a vital set of supporters.
A similar problem arises for Garber when he surveys - with a certain amount of envy, no doubt the sold-out Manchester United games. The fans who stormed the stadiums for those events were not Hispanic. But most of them belong to a highly irritating group known as EuroSnobs. Fans who will watch only the Premiership and Serie A and La Liga and the World Cup on television. Fans who wouldn't be caught dead attending an MLS game, fans who consider MLS so inferior as to be unworthy of their attention
The United contingent – all beaming smiles at their unarguable success on the field and at the gate - were careful and diplomatic enough to state that they felt they had helped the growth of American soccer. Possibly - though definitely not if their main influence has been to bolster the insufferable EuroSnobs (of whose existence United seemed blissfully unaware):