by Dawes Dunham
Major League Soccer. Something about the name just didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it was its close proximity to the name of my most worshipped sport, Major League Baseball. Perhaps it was the garish jerseys and worse team nicknames; Wizards, Galaxy, Burn, Mutiny, and Fusion were hardly enthralling names. They felt cooked up in a lab somewhere, even given my immature pre-teen sensibilities. This was my country, my league, and – at 12 years old, recently coming off the recent high of seeing the World Cup in my own backyard (America) – I felt no attachment to this fledgling enterprise.
My disassociation with the endeavor would continue into early adulthood. It was easy to mock MLS whilst looking over the pond at the greener grass of the EPL, La Liga, and Serie A. Even from the most casual of viewpoints, the style of play was shoddy in comparison. Granted, many of the stars of the United States National Team of which I was fond played in Major League Soccer, but I felt no obligation to follow them in comparison to my love of Manchester United and their English, French and Welsh maestros. I felt an almost righteous mandate to dropkick MLS into the back of my consciousness, much like Cantona was doing to loudmouth Crystal Palace supporters. Moral superiority in the context of sport is laughable at best, but I certainly felt it. I would never stoop so low as to care about this MLS nonsense.
One of the larger morsels of distaste jammed into my craw was the fan culture surrounding Major League Soccer. I did not see one. Without doubt, this thought was fed by my continued refusal to follow the league with anything but a passing glance. However, looking at my European counterparts (proper football fans), I felt lost at sea. I was trapped on the wrong continent. My passion for the best game in the whole world was being wasted and threatening to erode without some outlet. Little did I realize that the salvation I was seeking was right at my back door.
There are two kinds of contempt: open hatred and apathy. My view towards U.S. soccer was apathetic act as art form. The World Cup in 2002 would change all of that. I had always loved the United States National Team, and this was perhaps their finest hour in the modern era. Waking everyone at 3 AM with my exultations when the squad went up 3-0 against Portugal in the group stage is an indelible memory. I had matured somewhat and, now at the age of 20, I was prepared to give some of these players more of my heart and thoughts. Surprisingly, many of them had at the very least cut their teeth in MLS. Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna and my favorite player, Cobi Jones, all had ties to the league. I was starting to question my righteous resilience to American soccer.
Over the next few years I began to see a thaw in my self-indoctrination. I was beginning to like watching Major League Soccer. In some ways, it must be admitted, I still felt like I was cheating on “true football”, but I was starting to enjoy this dalliance. My family moved from Maine (nowhere, USA) to Pennsylvania (slightly better than nowhere, USA). There were teams within travelling distance. I could go to watch DC United if I had the desire, although I must say I never took advantage of the opportunity. However, the proximity alone made me continue in my journey towards an acceptance of my country’s version of this wondrous game.
The late 2000’s would see the greatest change in my hostility. Location had been a key factor in my reintroduction to the league, but a town on the other side of the country would truly make me a fan; Seattle. I knew it was a “cool” town. I don’t really need to say anything other than Nirvana here, do I? Added on to that fact was that my current musical obsession was Starbucks County’s own Death Cab for Cutie, which heightened my passion for this distant land. I knew they had some amazing fans (Seattle Seahawks of the NFL are renowned for their passionate supporters, who call themselves the twelfth man). The city of cool was about to make its biggest contribution to my journey; Seattle Sounders FC.
Watching a Sounders USL game on Fox Soccer Channel (one of their last home USL matches), the commentary was exuberant and excited, geared towards Seattle’s upcoming debut in Major League Soccer. The crowd seemed alright, but nothing that really took me aback. They were passionate, but they were relatively small in number. I had no idea what awaited my eyes in the coming year.
Seattle Sounders, like a few other MLS franchises, play their home matches in an American Football NFL stadium. It had become a point of derision to notice how small the crowds for soccer matches in these stadiums were. Sounders fans must have taken this as a personal affront, because they flocked to the stadium in droves, drawing over 30,000 fans to their home games. These were not just average, ignorant jugheads or corporate honchos, either. These supporters knew their football. They stood all match, they sang with gusto, and they quaffed beer like mighty lumberjacks (the ladies wore slightly less plaid). These people marched to the stadium through the city on match days and dominated the ESPN telecasts with their full voices. I was in awe. This is what I had always wanted. This felt home. It was 2,000 plus miles away from my backyard in Pennsylvania, but it was still my country. Maybe this league could be mine after all.
Looking back, my ignorance was astounding. The Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles of DC, and supporters groups from all over were laying this foundation long before Sounders FC joined MLS. The simple decision I had made as a pre-teen to shun this league at all costs was brutal. I never gave it a chance. I was wrong. Is football played more beautifully in other parts of the world? Without doubt. Are there more technically competent athletes and coaches across the ocean? Certainly. But this is my country, this is my league, and these are my people. I am an American soccer fan.