Phil West's book, "The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom," was a particular joy for me to read. Over the last year, I've acquainted myself with what many deem the best of the growing literature of the soccer genre (Fever Pitch, Inverting the Pyramid, Thirty-One Nil, etc.). Thanks to our incredible and astute Rapids fanbase, I know have many more added to my Amazon wishlist into which to delve!
West's book was the first book I've read about American soccer and its fandom. Reading up on the history of MLS and the American brand of fandom that fuels the entire experience was of endless fascination, and you could tell he was writing about American soccer fandom as an American soccer fan. As you read this book, you could see that he brought a wonderful historian's bent along with a labor of love to this project. He graciously allowed the Burgundy Wave to interview him.
Burgundy Wave: Thank you so much for taking time to talk soccer, especially American soccer, with us today. What made you tackle this particular subject of MLS?
Phil West: The book came out of another soccer-related project I was proposing to publishers through my agent. Overlook wanted an MLS history at a point where I was beginning to embrace MLS, so I gladly took it on. I knew, from the outset, that I wanted to talk about the role that supporters' groups had in creating the league's identity, as well as the role that league officials and front offices. What I didn't want to do is have it be a mere recounting of which players did what in which year. The story of how the league grew, survived being at the brink, and then grew some more was the real story to me.
BW: What was one (or two, if you're feeling froggy) takeaways in putting this project together? Any surprises?
PW: There were a lot of little surprises along the way—the revelation that it was a well-timed awards speech by Tim Howard that inspired Phil Anschutz to want to save the league, for example, or that Dave Checketts with Real Salt Lake has an unheralded but important role in getting MLS from the austerity measures years to the Beckham arrival. Because MLS doesn't yet have the staggering revenues of an NFL, it's been in a more tenuous position financially, but there are a lot of people committed to making MLS work, and ultimately, it's out of a genuine love of soccer that they're doing so.
BW: Your acknowledgment of the role club supporters’ groups played in giving MLS some traction, something I had never considered—I, sad to say, took them for granted. What are some non-negotiables supporters’ groups should have in best serving club and fan? Any examples?
PW: There's a paragraph I wrote in the intro I'm particularly proud of:
For the earliest groups, and even with relatively newer groups like Timbers Army, ECS, Sons of Ben, and your C38, I see supporters' groups as catalysts for energy in the rest of the stadium, and something that contributes to the atmosphere in the stadium. It allows soccer to be an organic live experience that you just won't get in, say, an NBA game, where there's such a clear orchestration of the fan experience directed from the front office.
BW: The single-entity model that our Commissioner (Don Garber) champions did help MLS navigate through the difficult years in the early 2000s. Do you see this model changing, with any openness of the MLS higher-ups supporting promotion-relegation? Do you feel that would be good for American soccer, or detrimental.
PW: There is most decidedly NO support for pro-rel right now among MLS execs—as I relayed in the book, from my interview with Commissioner Garber, pro-rel doesn't work given the SUM agreement and the financial commitment of owners. You can't tell an incoming ownership group paying nine figures, in part to get David Villa or Sebastian Giovinco to come to their home stadium, "You know, if you have one bad season, you'll be fighting your way out of NASL or USL to win back that right." I feel like if NASL folds, you could have a two-tiered USL with promotion and relegation between those, but I also know that's a scenario that won't satisfy the prorelerati.
While I see the appeal, I just don't buy the argument that pro-rel suddenly makes every team more competitive and better. I see a definite danger of what you have in England, where there's a distinct hierarchy between the top six teams and everyone else. '15-'16 Leicester is a Halley's Comet; it was remarkable, but I contend it will remain a literal once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. And, personally, I like that MLS marches to its own American drummer, with the ethos of a team that's bad one year to improve itself the next, get into the playoffs, and play its way to glory in a bracket rather than a table.
My favorite takeaway from this interview is the role the supporters’ groups play. I would like to tip my hat to C38 for all they do in providing the energy needed for our Rapids and for us as fans. Hopefully the rest of us who fill the stands can support you better as you support the team. Keep the tifos, the drums, the flags, and the energy coming!
And thank you for keeping the p*** chant to a minimum until it's eradicated all together (but that's the article for next week).
Phil, thank you! Let's do this again. If you're ever in Colorado to see our Rapids play, stop by and see us!
What questions would you have asked Phil? What were your favorite takeaways? Feel free to sound off in the comments section or send him a tweet @philwest.