The race is on and the New York Red Bulls have taken the lead
The departure of New York Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis reeks. There was clearly a power struggle, or undermining, or lying, or something. That, or the club needs better PR people. Whether or not something sketchy took place, the optics aren’t good for the Red Bulls. For two decades, MLS teams didn’t really need to care about optics, because MLS fans have been a pretty inelastic market, but it may be time for that to change. There’s a race taking place. The time has come for MLS to have a villain, and MLS teams need to be on top of their shit to make sure it’s not them.
Every sports league—like every good story—has at least one villain. The only thing we like more than watching our own team win is watching the team we hate lose. If the Steelers have a bye week, Pittsburgh residents will turn on CBS to cheer against the Ravens. Villains add appeal. They give us something to care about, to talk about, to watch. We almost enjoy hating another team as much as we enjoy supporting our team because it’s easier to notice the mistakes in sports.
MLS doesn’t have a detestable team yet. Some fanbases have rivalries—the Cascadia triumvirate is the obvious example—but the league, and country as a whole, doesn’t have someone to rally against and dislike. I have no idea how the LA Galaxy have gotten away with it for so long, but MLS still doesn’t have anyone that galvanizes a wide audience and draws neutrals’ attention. And I think that’s due to change soon.
For 22 years, we as fans have had the all-for-one mentality with MLS, simply cheering for the league as a whole and anything that comes with it because we needed to give it every ounce of compassion to help it survive. When a person from Portland or Columbus or Dallas turns on a Red Bulls vs. Revolution game on a Saturday night, do they really care who wins? Is that sustainable for continued growth? Clearly MLS has survived, and it’s going to change from the little brother of American sports to a fully-fledge entertainment ecosystem like the others. Villains are entertaining.
I have no evidence to defend my hypothesis, but I can point to history. All leagues, all stories, need a villain. (Admittedly, I thought the tide was finally going to turn on Galaxy after Nigel De Jong dropped a hammer on fan favorite Darlington Nagbe’s ankle and it never came to be, so maybe my theory is bunk.)
As attention to MLS grows, people — fans, radio show hosts, ESPN, Fox — will need something to talk about. As a country we spend more hours talking about soccer than ever before, and we need something to fill those hours. Baseball fans can always talk about the Yankees because they galvanize people; football pundits have the Patriots and Cowboys; the NBA thrived when LeBron went to the Heat. Who does the a large percentage of the U.S. soccer fanbase hate right now? Even the Mexican national team is getting some sympathy these days because of our president. Who does that leave us?
Soccer fans are going to pick a team to hate, and MLS teams need to start being more careful that it’s not them. I personally dislike the Red Bulls a little more now for blindsiding a beloved player like Dax McCarty with a trade and forcing Curtis out under murky circumstances, and my displeasure feels good. I’m glad I dislike them because it makes their games entertaining. They made the decision for me; they gave me something to care about that I otherwise wouldn’t have. MLS teams need to start to take a more holistic view of their brand and operations, because MLS is craving someone to finally hate.
The race is on.