As I live currently in the great state of Minnesota, land of my forebears, it seemed inevitable that when UZ and Virginia announced their roadtrip, there would be a Burgundy Wave "reunion" of sorts. UZ thought it would be fun to go check out the Minnesota Stars of the North American Soccer League (The American "Division 2", and you'll see why I put that in quotes at the end), and there's a couple of reasons for this.
1. The Minnesota Stars beat Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto in front of nearly 18,000 RSL fans, a privilege for which RSL had paid handsomely.
2. Did we need another reason?
I even got my picture on the Stars website, that's my left arm holding up the fan-made Joe Warren sign.
Thoughts and impressions after the jump.
I've had more than one experience watching matches from the NASL, so I guess it falls to me to comment on what I see going on there. Two things I noticed:
1. The fan base is small, but absolutely dedicated. The Dark Clouds were really fun to spend time with and even welcomed us with a Colorado beer! (Ranger IPA from Fat Tire if you're curious)
2. The on-field product is not competitive with the direction in which MLS clubs have taken with regards to playing good soccer.
Hate to call it out like that, but here's why I think that, especially based on that night in Minnesota. That night, the Stars played the San Antonio Scorpions, who currently sit in 1st place on the table by about 4 points. Watching San Antonio play, I was taken back to those days in Rapids land of playing clog-and-hoof ball. San Antionio were content to sit back and absorb pressure from Minnesota (which was OK because Minnesota rarely threatened) and San Antonio would punch them back on a counter-attack, usually heading up Route 1 over the top.
The game was decided on a penalty kick from a terrible tackle made in the box. A deserved penalty, and that's how the game ultimately was decided. A penalty kick and around 90 minutes of some pretty bad soccer. I might also want to mention that the Stars nearly went up by 2 if not for near-offside calls. The Dark Clouds, the Minnesota Stars supporters group, were understandably upset, and from our angle (right behind the goal, mocking the San Antonio keeper the entire time) it looked barely offside if even that.
So a terrible game gets decided by terrible calls. Most of the fans left upset and feeling hard-done... but what can you do? Same old story.
The performance of both teams in this game took us back to the MLS "Open Cup disaster" this year. Where NASL teams ran rampant over 3 out of 5 of their MLS competitors (the only exceptions were the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes). None of them were particularly praised for their footballing prowess, and much of the loss could be attributed to their MLS competition not taking the match as seriously as their NASL counterparts.
What I noticed most about these matches is that it didn't really seem like NASL is Division 2 in any real sense of the word. It looked really just like these are two independent leagues, existing side by side and competing with each other in different markets instead of in any kind of real pyramid. It's not as if these teams couldn't compete in MLS. In fact, many of them could with the cagey "clog and counter" style that's popular in San Jose these days. It seemed to me like I was looking back at MLS in history, before some teams started favoring a more offensive minded style. MLS still has a long way to go, but it's on the right track. NASL is still wallowing with no visible end in sight for the style that's being cultivated there.
At the time, I called it "The Magic of the Cup", but after I watched some more of the games, I saw that it was the same old story. NASL clubs playing tough, hard-nosed football, MLS Clubs not being of the measure to the task in front of them. It felt more like a "gotcha" moment than any kind of real seismic shift in the quality of American soccer. I thought of the EPL and those "giant killer" matches between Wolves and Chelsea, or Hull and Arsenal, or... name it. You've seen a match like that. They aren't that much fun to watch. Gotcha moments are great for those moments, but for 90+ minutes just to get to one "Gotcha" moment just isn't worth it. But then I got thinking about something else...
This made me think of Swansea City FC. Swansea, if you remember from last season, was supposedly "just another club from the bottom". They'd probably offer something similar to what had been offered by clubs like Hull City and Wolverhampton in seasons past: defensive grit and lots of hard tackling--a desperate scramble to stay up. While that can be entertaining to watch, Swansea had taken a different path. Swansea decided to play positive, attacking, and fairly attractive football--and they became more successful than a lot of people expected.
I don't see that ever happening in NASL. NASL clubs will continue to play hard-nosed football because at the end of the day, that's what wins them games and gives them a trophy at the end of the season. It's an enclosed system built to value results over style. It's winning in a petrie dish--and ecosystem completely closed off.
Now, back to why I called it "Division 2" soccer. Calling it a 2nd Division in soccer is a joke until you have promotion and relegation. Why? Because these clubs have even less incentive to play the attractive product MLS is looking for if they have no hope of playing in "Division 1". By not having a promotion and relegation system, MLS is basically supporting two enclosed systems which favor results over style. Sigi Schmid, ever the Machiavellian, once famously quipped that MLS is a counter-attacking league. And while his Seattle Sounders play a particularly nice style of counter-attacking football, they still play the counter. Until "Division 2" soccer is actually Division 2, and "Division 1" is actually a Division 1, we will continue to see a style propagated to win in a petrie dish, rather than a style that can compete with the best leagues in the world.
MLS, and the US Soccer Federation by extension, is missing out on an opportunity to develop the kind of on-field product that they'd like to see by fostering competition instead of collaboration, and NASL (and any other league that wears the dubious monicker of "Division 2") is going to perpetually be the victim of the insular nature of American soccer.